On the Radar: Apple Retail, Vendetta vs. Da Vinci, and WordPress Tweaks

* ??NorthJersey??: “Citigroup pulling plug on its AT&T Cash Rewards Card”:http://www.northjersey.com/page.php?qstr=eXJpcnk3ZjczN2Y3dnFlZUVFeXkyOSZmZ2JlbDdmN3ZxZWVFRXl5NjkzODY4NyZ5cmlyeTdmNzE3Zjd2cWVlRUV5eTI. Wow, directly relevant to a “brief conversation”:http://kennsarah.net/2006/05/20/on-the-radar-2/#comments about finances on this site, it looks like the AT&T card is now, officially, too good to be true.
* ??The New Yorker??: “Heaven Can Wait”:http://www.newyorker.com/critics/cinema/?060529crci_cinema (“via Alissa”:http://www.alissaclark.com/?p=324). Awesome, snarky review of the sucky Da Vinci code. It’s amazing that this movie has garnered such vilification. Is it because it’s ratio of quality to marketing dollars is so low?
* ??Wired Magazine??: “The Resurrection of Al Gore”:http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/14.05/gore.html. Funny, I just read an article in another magazine that said Al lost the election largely because his handlers told him to marginalize the environment — the one true issue that Gore is passionate about — in his platform against Bush. Yeah, I think if he sounded less like a robot, he would have scored some extra votes, but I don’t think Bush won the election on the basis of his personality. *Bonus*: out today, NPR takes a look at the art and science of Al Gore’s documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth”:http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5428154.
* ??Fortune Magazine??: “Real Estate Survival Guide”:http://money.cnn.com/2006/05/03/news/economy/realestateguide_fortune/index.htm. Fascinating series of articles from Fortune about the impending market correction. A lot of people got in over their heads with the real estate bubble, taking on massive debts in exotic mortgages on property that isn’t worth what they paid for it. The crisis will occur when those mortgages (such as interest-only loans) turn into “real” mortgages and double the monthly payment for a lot of people. It won’t be pretty.
* YouTube: “CNBC Interviews Steve Jobs”:http://youtube.com/watch?v=y6BFhRkUJEI&search=apple,%205th%20avenue (“via John”:http://daringfireball.net/linked/2006/may#tue-23-cnbc). CNBC grills Jobs on Apple’s retail strategy, growth, and even the rumored iPhone. A bit weird to see Steve not totally in control of a media situation. 🙂
* ??New York Times??: “Apple, a Success at Stores, Bets Big on Fifth Avenue”:http://www.nytimes.com/2006/05/19/technology/19apple.html. In retrospect, success has a way of looking inevitable. But there was considerable skepticism at the outset about what Apple was doing. And others have failed; Gateway closed its retail stores two years ago.
* ??Signal vs. Noise??: “Is Don Norman right about Google?”:http://37signals.com/svn/archives2/is_don_norman_right_about_google.php. Matt writes up some interesting thoughts on organizations, innovation, and what the intersection of those two things looks like for Google.
* ??Joe Tan??: “WordPress Flickr Post Bar”:http://tantannoodles.com/toolkit/wp-flickr-post-bar/. Joe provides a WordPress plugin that lets you post your Flickr photos into blog entries with a helpful upload bar. I used it for “this entry”:http://kennsarah.net/2006/05/20/how-sarah-topped-the-philharmonic/, and it saved a bit of time flipping back and forth from our Flickr acocunt.
* ??WordPress Widgets??: “Drop Down Archives”:http://widgets.wordpress.com/2006/05/23/drop-down-archives/. The XHTML is not quite valid, but a nice little widget that gives you a drop-down of that growing list of archive months. I used it to tidy up this site a bit: our sidebar was becoming a monster, and I didn’t want to devote so much real-estate to links that weren’t getting many clicks. I also shortened the number of blogs we’re displaying on the homepage — less is more.
* ??Metaphilm??: “V for Vindictive”:http://metaphilm.com/philm.php?id=475_0_2_0. ??Jim Rovira?? takes an incisive look at V for Vendetta against the backdrop of the Wachowski’s previous power vs. freedom dialectic in the Matrices. Interesting reading — I think maybe I’ll go see the movie now. 🙂
* ??Tyler Hall??: “How To Backup Your Mac Intelligently”:http://www.sitening.com/blog/2006/05/23/how-to-backup-your-mac-intelligently/ (“via Lifehacker”:http://www.lifehacker.com/software/backup/backup-your-mac-the-smart-way-176314.php). We don’t have a good backup solution right now. I just spent an hour pulling data off of Sarah’s old IBM 570 laptop (which is now officially retired) and onto the Powerbook. I do have a backup of our music and documents on an external hard drive that’s at least a month old, but, beyond that, we don’t have a good incremental solution.
* ??John Gruber??: “Confidence Game”:http://daringfireball.net/2006/05/confidence_game. Gruber analyzes Apple’s hitting on all cylinders in the context of Microsoft’s lackluster performance — at least in terms of products. It’s a great article, but if Microsoft were really coming unglued, how is it that they’re returning profits at a growing rate?

The Long Emergency

The Long Emergency. Thanks to Russ for the link, and to Alan Farhi for the lunch conversation about this very article two weeks ago. Kunstler tells a plausible doomsday scenario by asking the simple question: what happens if the world’s petroleum infrastructure ceases to exist? Every excess we know today in America — from Starbucks to air travel to the Internet — depends on the vast electric product of petrol reserves which, by many counts, may continue to follow this trend:

The fundamental shift is not a bubble generated by speculation, but that of a systematic upward shift in the long-term price of oil.

The source? Why, that crazy, left-wing propaganda machine known as…er, Goldman Sachs (via CNN). Wired had a feature last month about China’s growing thirst for oil. I wonder if Kunstler hasn’t hit the nail on the head with this article. If nothing else, he’s certainly riding the wave of media madness over energy prices with his latest book. My only question is: is this really a bad thing?

I mean, sure, the collapse of everything we know and hold dear relative to suburban values and multinational corporations would be a drastic transformation of our culture. And, it breaks my heart to think about the decay of our largest cities (which are unsustainable without huge energy reserves). I’m just wondering if a return to simpler lifestyles would at all be a bad thing.

For more reading: I thought Tom G.’s comments were interesting, Fortune seems to be approaching the subject with a level head, and can we get an XML feed for these numbers? Oh, and Newark, NJ has the cheapest gas prices in the nation these days, though public transportation to my new job is pretty decent.

I, Robot; You, Robot

Just saw this. I dug it, though I have to admit that it didn’t meet my expectations. Worth seeing again–the special effects and cinematography were fun–but the characters were so two-dimensional:

Will Smith
“Hi, I’m the caricature of a cop that is angry, but cares. Let me say something smug and hip.”
Scientist Chick
“All scientists are devoid of emotion, and, being a scientist, I therefore have ice water flowing through my veins. However, I did see Will Smith’s cute butt at the start of the film, so I will inevitably succumb to his wiley charms.”
“I’m the Man, with little time for idle chit-chat and a plan to make boatloads of cash with my capitalist agenda for world domination.”
“I…I’m alive! I’m a real boy! The hiiiiiiiills are aliiiiiiiive with the sound of muuuuuuusiiiiiiiiic.”
Doubting Police Chief
“Will Smith, I don’t believe you–all robots are always clearly incapable of doing any wrongdoing, ever–so I am taking your badge. However, you may continue to run amok through the city with your firearm.”
Will Smith
“Argh! I’m a lose cannon! I will wave my gun around and disdain authority!”
Scientist Chick
“You’re completely irresistabl–er, irrational. I find the cold logic of the machines better company than your manaical ramblings. Yet, I will entertain your absurd consipiracy theories until the special effects action sequences carry this movie to the final credits.”
*knocked unconscious*
“Why do humans cry?”
Scientist Chick
“I will openly imply that your personal growth through this drama seriously increases your chances of a second date.”
Will Smith
*uses street-smarts and Luddite values to save the day*
*recites original poetry*
Isaac Asimov
*spins in grave*


NJ DMV Inspectors Take Work Personally, Wrestle with Inadequacy

Randolph, NJ—Times are hard for local DMV inspectors who seek to bring purpose to their jobs as advances in technology and relaxed legislation have all but made the inspectors’ jobs irrelevant. Still, diligent employees continue to enforce stringent inspection requirements in the hopes of keeping the roads safe.

Robert Engle, 47, is the Inspection Chief at the Randolph facility. “The four-year requirement has been a blow to morale,” confesses Engle, referring to the recent legislation to lengthen the required two-year inspection cycle to a four-year requirement.

“I mean, only a few years ago, we were inspecting cars every year. The long waits, impatient motorists, and red tape really made you feel like you were fighting for something. Now, well, we just have to work that much harder to keep the scum off of our roads and highways.”

Just behind Engle, no less than five DMV attendants have just finished a 31-minute-long inspection of a 1997 Pontiac Bonneville before reluctantly passing the car. Two lanes over, inspection team members let out a shout for joy and deliver high-fives over a broken turn signal.

Engle, a resident of Kenvil, explains, “It gets harder and harder to find reasons to fail people these days, but we’ve learned to pick out the ones that shouldn’t be on the road. Give us enough time–we’ll find a reason.”

In response to the loosened laws, DMV officials have seen fit to take a hard line on what little authority they have left by inflicting personal or even bodily injury on motorists who violate code. Bureaucrats are quick to defend the measures in the act of keeping roads safe for law-abiding motorists.

Critics, however, insist that the DMV employ seek a cathartic expression of their frustration and insecurities. Indeed, many employees at the Department of Motor Vehicles are failed applicants to other, more respected state institutions such as the New Jersey State Police, NJ Transit, and the Department of Sanitation.

Outside, a waiting motorist shifts uncomfortably in his car. A bright-red rejection sticker and what appears to be a pair of crutches are visible through the windshield of his Chevrolet Cavalier.

“We had an elderly guy bring in an old Aries K a couple of weeks ago,” recalls 25-year-old junior inspector Jimmy Mattox. “It took us about a half-hour, but we finally found out that his tire pressure was a little low in the front left tire. I grabbed the guy by the shoulder and slammed him against the hood of the car and I was like, ‘If you ever, ever bring this piece of garbage in here again, we’re gonna give you a lot more than a sticker, old man–got it?’ [Laughs] I mean, we’ve got a duty to keep the roads safe from people like that, you know?”

Nearby, two young children watch in tears as their mother is publicly ridiculed by an attendant over a leaky gas cap.

Engle agrees, “I tell people, the police might deal with some of New Jersey’s problems, but this is where the action is–right here. We’ve got a job to do. We call it like we see it and I think our streets are safer because of us. Think about it for a minute. Can you imagine what New Jersey would be like without our Department of Motor Vehicles?”

A Conversation in Chicago

Sam Andreades: Science is Cold, Hard Fact; Religion is a Matter of Opinion.

Otto: All I can think is that this huge building we are in is possible because of Newtonian statics.
Giles: Yes! It is a map good enough for sending up a skyscraper, but not good enough for sending up a rocket to nearby stars. And Einstein’s gravity tensor map, my word—that map is so new, we have not even figured out how to use it. But they are maps, and need to find their place in some other source to deliver truth.
Otto: But most of science does not proceed by violent revolution.
Giles: True, most scientists spend their lives filling out an existing theory, uncovering the small anomalies that will eventually grow to bring the whole theory crashing down.
Otto: I mean more than that. You cannot say that all of science is provisional.
Giles: All of science is provisional. There. I said it.

Sam approached me at church yesterday because he found his name on Our Story–turns out that we’re in the Google top-three listing if you search for his name. Isn’t Google-whacking fun? 😉 Actually, that’s exactly how he found it: he was using Google to find this article, which he was going to refer to a friend.

This is an article he wrote that he described as being one of the fruits of his graduate work. I’m nowhere near current enough on the arguments of scientific theory to follow everything, but I found the conversation engaging and enlightening.

Still Downloading!

Sarah and I went to go see the Matrix last night. It was awesome, but I’m still trying to figure a lot of stuff out. More later when I get my brain unknotted. 🙂

In other news, Advil Flu & Body Ache has become a new friend…:-(

Later: Chicken & potatos, blogging, and The Big Lebowski. It’s good for what ails ya.

Is Starbucks Evil?

When I was talking to Jan last week, we had discussed, in passing, the nature of Starbucks. Voracious readers of Our Story will recall that I’m a Starbucks fan. From the drinks to the wireless access, I just really enjoy taking the laptop in, plopping down in an overstuffed chair, and spending an hour or so hanging out.

Sarah and I discovered last week that there’s a Starbucks right around the corner from The Village Church, on Greenwich Avenue. I mentioned to Jan that this was a strong draw to come back to the church and she balked, exclaiming, “Starbucks is evil!” The rationale goes something like this: Starbucks has a stated business objective to put any and all competition out of business—especially targeting small-business comptetitors. What probably goes hand-in-hand with this argument is that Starbucks is a multinational corporation who leads an extremely well-branded marketing campaigns and has a track record of putting local businesses into bankruptcy court—much in the same way that Walmart and the Home Depot have done to competing businesses.

But, is this really evil? I mean, I work for a multinational corporation. We have a brand strategy. One of our stated objectives is to crush our competition. That’s business. You don’t go into the market to “kinda” get marketshare from your competitors, any more than the Nets “kinda” want to beat the Celtics.

However—I know—it’s not all that simple. In a world where power is on the side of the oppressors (cf. Ecclesiastes 4), the powers of business need to be checked. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. Global business has a track record of disregarding human rights issues to protect their own bottom line—justice-based business initiatives cut into profits.

What’s more difficult is that people are wrestling with the concept of America as a corporately branded culture in the 21st century. This is may not be an unfamiliar concept to you, but what “will really bake your noodle later on is,” can you even fathom what it would be to not live in a branded culture? Try it, just for a minute. Can you imagine not growing up with Thundercats and that great Eye of Thundera logo? Or, not aligning yourself with the car company whose product you drive? Or, not drooling over the latest Apple-branded gadget (okay, some of you may not have to imagine that)? 🙂 What must life have been for people who, even a hundred years ago, didn’t have such prevalent signs and logos?

Anyway, I don’t have answers to these questions. So, I turned to Google. (Insert brand irony here). The top ten-or-so hits returned these articles which, if nothing else, provide something to think about:

* PuntiveArt: Starbucks – Chain != Evil. The main complaint I hear about Starbucks is that they put the indies out of business. Sometimes they do, other times they don’t. From all the indies I hung out in, I can tell you most of them deserved to go out of business. Average coffee, horrible service, minimal selection.
* Fluffybunny: Bringing Down Starbucks… one latte at a time. The third trip found me again facing the smirking barista who called into question my right to use another coupon. The coupon’s only stated limitation was one per visit so I politely pointed out the fine print and told him not to skimp on the froth. He grudgingly served me my coffee and I smiled my warmest ‘season’s greetings’ to him before turning away.
* ihatestarbucks.com: Why do I, personally, hate Starbucks? I hate them because their coffe sucks and they are everywhere. You can´t escape them.
* Ocean Beach Grassroots Organization: Starbucks not welcome in OB. Since March 2001, thousands of activists have taken part in protests and leafleting events outside $tarbucks cafes in over 300 cities in the US, Canada, New Zealand and England. Man, these guys are passionate about this. Lots of links here, too.
* Starbucks: Corporate Social Responsibility. Giving back to our communities is the way we do business. Contributing positively to our communities and environment is so important to Starbucks it is listed as a guiding principle of the company’s mission. Partners at all levels are involved in this initiative in a number of areas, helping to improve resources and well-being in our surroundings.

When deep space exploration ramps up, it’ll be the corporations that name everything: the IBM stellar sphere, the Microsoft galaxy, Planet Starbucks.Fight Club

Update: More reading:

* Starbucks: 2002 10-K. Net revenues increased 24% from $2.6 billion in fiscal 2001 to $3.3 billion in fiscal 2002, primarily due to the Company’s store expansion program and comparable store sales increases…As a result of its expansion strategy of clustering stores in existing markets, Starbucks has experienced a certain level of cannibalization of sales of existing stores by new stores as store concentration has increased…This cannibalization, as well as increased competition, slowing economies and other factors, may put downward pressure on the Company’s comparable store sales growth in future periods. I went looking for this after Ryan mentioned it in his comment. Starbucks 24% net revenue growth is astounding, especially when one considers that this is accounting for “downward pressure” of Starbucks’ “cannibalization” growth strategy.
* Hoover’s: Starbucks Corporation Profile. Starbucks’ strategy is simple: Establish its name everywhere. Chairman Howard Schultz estimates the coffee company will hit 20,000 stores before it lets up. Having conquered the US, the company is invading Europe… Note: don’t bother clicking on the link unless you have or want to purchase Hoover’s premium offerings.