31 May 2007


A few weeks ago I made that most bourgeois of purchases, a high-definition plasma TV. Those of you who are around me with any frequency know that I've been working up to this for about a year, and you're probably sick of hearing me go on about it. But rather than just say "this is what you should buy," I'm hoping that what I learned during the process may help some of you make the right decisions, or at least avoid making the wrong ones. I apologize for the length of this post, but this is a substantial purchase, one you don't want to make impulsively.

I didn't buy a big TV to show off. My 12-year-old 32" TV was acting cranky for the first few minutes every time it was turned on, and I figured it was the beginning of the end. (In 1995 it was the cheapest set available in that size, and I've definitely gotten my money's worth from it.) Also, because of my poor eyesight, I've always had to sit closer to the TV than I would like, so I wanted a bigger set to give me a little viewing flexibility. At first I considered just getting another tube TV. The largest cathode-ray tube TVs still available are 36", but let's face it, the CRT is old technology that's on its way out; manufacturers have sharply cut their production of tube TVs and are offering few choices these days. So there wasn't any advantage there, even before I'd factored the advent of high-definition broadcasting into the consideration.

For sheer size, nothing beats a projection set (now generally referred to as DLP). They are the least expensive of the large (42" and up) HD sets on the market, and considerably slimmer than the hulking styles of a few years ago, but after viewing several models in stores, I decided against them. Except for the most expensive ones, DLP sets don't offer as sharp a picture as other formats; they have a lamp or bulb that needs to be replaced after a few years; and there are still issues with viewing angle--in one store, I had to crouch down to avoid the darkening of the picture that occurs when you look at it off-angle, and that was the deal-breaker.

So it came down to plasma vs. LCD. Both have some pluses and minuses, but the bottom line is the bottom line: LCD sets cost more than plasma sets in comparable sizes. This is supposedly going to change in a few years, but for now it is still more expensive to manufacture the larger LCD panels. I was comparing a 50" plasma to a 46" LCD, and even at the end of the model year, the LCD cost 20% more. LCD sets do weigh less than comparably-sized plasma sets, but how often do you need to pick up your TV anyway?

Plasma sets are susceptible to burn-in if you leave the set on the same channel for too long (from news crawls or "bugs," those network logos that are always in the same spot on the screen), or watch lots of standard-definition broadcasts with the black bars on the sides, but the risk declines after the first 100 hours or so of use, and if you've bought one of these things, you should be making the most of HD anyway (and thus filling the entire screen area).

I knew exactly which model I wanted four months ago, but I decided to play the waiting game because I knew the price would be dropping when the newer models appeared in the spring. I read up on the models that were being introduced this spring, but the consumer electronics industry has a tendency to
remove features in order to achieve specific price points. I wanted a certain feature that had largely been eliminated on the 2007 crop of TVs in my price range, and since there weren't any significant changes to the technology, I wasn't losing anything by choosing an outgoing model, and I saved several hundred dollars by waiting and buying strategically--after prices had been reduced, but before the remaining stock sold out. The drop in price between January and April amounted to 25% of the price I ultimately paid.

Then there was the matter of where to make the purchase. I imagine there are plenty of people who would just wander on over to the nearest shiny-gadget emporium and get whatever model is on sale that week, but that's not me. The big stores' selection tends to be broad, but not deep. I found only two local stores that purported to carry the model I wanted, and both were charging full retail (which you saw if you followed that link up above), which was hundreds (eventually thousands) more than what some online stores were charging. I checked at Costco; they have a fairly liberal return policy, and I figured a good price would be worth the trouble of asking my one SUV-owning friend to help me get the thing home, but they typically carry just a few models, whichever ones they've been able to negotiate the best deals on that quarter, and the one I wanted wasn't one of them.

Beyond these factors, I've mentioned that I like to be mindful of where my money goes, and I prefer to support independent businesses when possible. There are plenty of those online, but most savvy shoppers these days know that not all online stores are created equal. This is particularly true with items like heavy, bulky TVs. Shipping them is expensive; some sites just pass that cost along to you, while others offer free (but painfully slow)
delivery; the best sites offer a variety of delivery options, depending on how much you're willing to pay and how fast you want your TV to arrive. You can pay upwards of $200 and get only "curbside delivery," which means just what you think it means: the box comes off the back of the truck and gets put on the ground, and from there you're on your own. Hopefully you've called a friend or two to help you up those two flights of narrow steps.

The other crucial piece of information is that many online electronics retailers will not accept returns of big TVs for any reason, even if it doesn't work right out of the box, and even if they are an authorized dealer for the brand. This is basically because they don't want the trouble and expense of coming back to pick up that lemon set you just bought. In cases like this, you have to deal with the manufacturer directly. This can be a wildly variable experience, and there are horror stories all over the web that may put you off buying the thing completely, or may just drive you back to your local
shiny-gadget emporium.

You really have to read all a site's policies carefully in order to make an informed decision. I was determined to get the "white-glove" treatment: full, indoor delivery service and setup, and I was willing to pay extra for it if necessary, but what I really wanted was to get it for free. Ultimately I found the model I'd chosen, at a substantially reduced end-of-model-year price, at Crutchfield, an independent catalog and online retailer with a superb reputation, excellent customer service, a 30-day return policy, and free delivery and setup. It took a bit of effort on my part, keeping tabs on price drops every week or so over the course of several months, but it was worth it. Deciding on a specific model first, and being familiar with the company, kind of knowing that's where I wanted to buy from, made the process a lot easier.

We've been enjoying the TV for a month now, and it's as great as I expected it to be. The cable company just added three more high-definition channels last week, and hopefully more will be added soon. And in case anyone's wondering, I didn't throw away the old TV. It
still had some life in it, so I passed it along to a friend.

29 May 2007

Call Waiting

On Thursday evening I kicked off my extra-long holiday weekend (that's right, I didn't have to work Friday either) by attending a play at the BU Theatre, courtesy of my friend Anne, who got the tickets for free through her employer. Before the show began, there was a reminder to turn off cell phones.

The performance was the Huntington Theatre Company's production of
Present Laughter by Noel Coward. I confess to knowing very little about him, but the show was quite entertaining, funny and drily witty. Near the end of the first act, during a brief lull onstage, I caught the muffled but noticeable sound of a vibrating cell phone coming from a couple of rows behind me. I suppose there are people, doctors and such, who are required to be on call for emergencies and who cannot turn off their phones completely, so I decided to give whoever it was the benefit of the doubt.

During the second act, from somewhere further back came the even more distinct sound of the Nokia ringtone. (I'm sure you all know the one I mean, even if you don't realize you know it.) It wasn't at full volume, but it was loud enough to be a distraction. The phone's owner succeeded in silencing it after a few rings. To their credit, the actors either didn't hear it, or they chose to ignore it. Trying to maintain the spirit of generosity, I thought maybe someone used their phone at intermission to check in with the babysitter, and forgot to turn it off again. Fortunately there were no interruptions during the third act, but during the intermissions (there were two), I noticed several men tucked into the various corners of the theater, hunched over their BlackBerries.

I don't have access to email or the web on my cell phone. Actually, I do have access, but I've chosen not to enable it. I've been tempted by the Treo, having worked for a while for a company owned by Palm; there are times when I'd love to be able to look up directions or restaurant info on the go, but I don't think it would happen often enough to justify the additional cost each month. I have the feeling I'll give in at some point, but for now I'd like to think I can live without being connected during those times when I'm neither at home nor at work.

On Saturday afternoon, the Mrs. and I went to a movie. About half an hour in I hit the trifecta: the phone of one of the people sitting behind us rang. The woman answered it, but she immediately whispered, "I'm at the movies, I'll call you back" and hung up. A noble effort, but again I have to wonder: was this necessary? Are people really so careless, or are they just selfish? When I go into a movie, a play, or even a restaurant, I immediately silence my phone. It's become a reflex action.

I think our electronic tethers are inflating our sense of self-importance. It's one thing to call home to check on the kids, but is it possible that everyone at the theater last Thursday was such an important person that they couldn't (or wouldn't) turn off their cell phones even after being asked to, and had to check their email during the breaks in a play that had a total running time of about two hours and forty minutes? It seems excessive. Entertainment is supposed to be a respite from our everyday lives, not an interruption of them.

24 May 2007

Shack Attack

The other day I was upgrading some of the cables and connections of my A/V setup (more on that soon) and determined that I needed to split the signal that comes in through the coaxial cable so it could go to two separate devices. This is easily done with a little doohickey called, accurately enough, a splitter. But getting one meant I had to go to an electronics store, which is one of my least favorite shopping destinations.

This might be surprising to some, considering my love for technology, but I generally find these places highly annoying and depressing, and tend to buy my gear online from privately held, customer-focused companies like J&R or Crutchfield. (
I considered buying the splitter online, but it seemed silly for something so small, plus I needed/wanted it quicker.)

The sole purpose of a store like Best Buy or Circuit City is to get you to part with as much of your money as possible. I'm sure you're thinking, isn't that the purpose of all retail stores? Sure, but consumer electronics chains are more blatant and sleazy about it than, say, Nordstrom. They want your money too, but they aren't going to try to push you into an extended warranty for that pair of pants.

I decided I could either stop at a store on my way home from work, or make a special trip on a day I wasn't working. I opted to do it on the way home, making the errand slightly less painful and not wasting my free time. Then I started wondering if there might be another place I could get the part, and into my brain drifted the words "Radio Shack."

Remember them? They're still around. How that's possible is anyone's guess, since they ceased being relevant to the marketplace nearly three decades ago, around the time the CB radio craze had run its course (I'm speaking from personal experience here, but don't judge me; I was still pretty young, and pretty bored). And just last year there was the CEO who resigned after lying about his academic credentials, and a few months later the company's decision to inform several hundred employees that they had been laid off via email. A real shining star in the retail firmament there.

But they are still in business, somehow. In the scheme of things my few dollars wouldn't make much difference either way, and I wasn't planning on buying anything else there for, oh, ever. And when I considered it, stopping at a Shack was actually on my way home, not even half a block from a T station, which made it less trouble than going somewhat out of my way to Best Buy. (Maybe that's how they've managed to keep going--by being more convenient?) I was also sort of curious to see what the place was like, since I hadn't been in one for at least ten years. What
were they selling? Who shopped there?

The answer to the first question was mostly cell phones and the mountains of crap that go along with them, and other miscellaneous stuff of about the same quality (poor) as the electronics you'd find at Target. The answer to the second question, at least at 5:30 on a Thursday afternoon, was nobody, or rather nobody else besides me. Three clerks were standing around, talking and looking excruciatingly bored. I found the splitter in less than a minute, paid for it, and got on my way.

Back in the day, if you bought something at Radio Shack, you could be assured of being put on their mailing list for what seemed like the rest of your life. Instead of putting their flyers in the Sunday newspapers like everyone else, they chose to mail them to millions of customers, roughly every couple of weeks. If you asked not to give your name to cut down on the junk mail, the clerk would tell you it was store policy and that you had to do it. It got to the point that, when I did have to buy something there, I always paid in cash and gave a fake name at an old address, simply out of spite. I guess they finally figured out that wasn't the most customer-friendly way of doing things.

Before I went to the store, I had checked the web site to make sure they did in fact carry what I needed, and to confirm that the store I wanted to stop at was indeed still open. The site was actually pretty okay, with decent navigation and lots of subcategories to narrow my search. As with some other clicks-and-bricks retailers, I could place an order and have it shipped to a store to pick up, and not have to pay a shipping charge.

It made me think that, while they might have missed the bus with regard to their store operations, they seemed to have grasped the
basics of online retailing. Maybe that's the future of the company, after the stores wither and die. And we can all look forward to spam from them for the rest of our lives.

21 May 2007

Monday Morning MBTA Blues

It was bad enough that I started the morning commute by missing my usual bus (which I think is coming earlier, because I'm leaving the house at the same time) and had to wait 20 minutes for the next one. When I made it to the Orange Line, the train went one stop, then the doors started closing and reopening repeatedly. Eventually we started moving again, but I could tell it wasn't going to end well.

Sure enough, when we got to State, two of the three sets of doors on the station side of the car didn't open at all, and the third opened and closed again immediately. It wasn't even open long enough for anyone to start moving, so luckily no one got caught in it. But the people who were trying to get off the train started banging on the windows and yelling, as though some sort of poison gas had just been released into the car. I mean, sure, I'd be upset too; we've all had trains and buses miss our desired stop for some reason. But it just seemed like a slight overreaction.

The train went one more stop to Downtown Crossing, and naturally the doors on the other side of the car didn't open either. The train sat there for a couple of minutes, as passengers started muttering to themselves or each other about the havoc wreaked on their commutes by the T on a regular basis. Then the door at the back of the car opened and a conductor came through. She did something to override the system and the rearmost door opened. The people who wanted that stop, and those who had been unable to get out at the previous one, exited the train. We sat for another minute or two, and then came the inevitable announcement: "All passengers please exit this train. This train is coming out of service." Somehow they managed to get all the doors to open, but only to let everyone out more easily.

As we all stood on the platform, we were assured that the next train was just back at State and would be arriving momentarily. This of course was a lie (as it is every time T personnel claim that there is another train "directly behind"), but it was only a small lie, as the train did arrive about five minutes later. But it was still rush hour, so as you'd expect, that train was already pretty full, and there was no way it was going to be able to absorb the contents of another train. I opted not to try to squish in with everyone else, and stayed on the platform.

Once again we were told there was a train at State that would be arriving right away. Once again it was a lie. This time the wait was closer to ten minutes. I thought to myself, could they be having problems with another train? Then I saw the lights in the tunnel. The train approached, and as it came into the station, I saw that the first car was dark, which meant no passengers were in that car. Yes, there had indeed been trouble with another train, and they were only two trains apart. What fun.

But there was enough room on that train for everyone, and I did eventually make it to work. It took about 30 minutes longer than usual, not counting the extra time due to the missed bus. If I do include that, then it took me two hours to get to work today. Let's see how the ride home goes...

UPDATE Tuesday 5/22: This turned out to be a slightly bigger deal than I thought. It actually made the Globe today. And I guess those doors were open a little longer than I'd realized (admittedly, I was reading the paper at the time), because a guy got his arm stuck between the doors. He was able to pull it back in, but lost his briefcase in the process. Nice. I wonder if he can file any sort of claim with the T?

UPDATE Wednesday 5/23: For those of you who may be arriving at this story from the link on Universal Hub, I want to be clear that I was in no way making fun of the man whose arm was caught in the train doors. I admittedly was not paying full attention to what was going on, since this sort of thing is unfortunately a not-that-infrequent occurrence on the T, so I didn't realize the full extent of what was happening. I'm very relieved to hear that he is okay, and that he was reunited with his briefcase due to the unselfish action of a fellow passenger. But the T still screwed up big time.

18 May 2007

Paper or Plastic?

On Wednesday I received a letter from my bank telling me that VISA had informed them that my debit card had been "compromised," and that I should call to have it canceled and replaced. Since the card was still in my wallet, I wondered how that might have occurred.

Then I remembered the TJX data breach that was reported in January. While I'm not a particularly frequent shopper at TJ Maxx, Marshalls, or any of the company's other chains, I have bought things from them here and there, and odds are I've used my debit card in one of their stores at least once in the past several years. Since the data thefts supposedly went back as far as 2003, that would increase the likelihood that my card data was among the millions that were stolen.

This is actually the third time my personal information has been stolen or otherwise compromised, and considering that, I'm very fortunate that the outcome has not been worse. A bit over a year ago, the Boston Globe's delivery company wrapped some bundles of newspapers in printouts with customer information on them, mine included. Two years ago, I got a phone call from my credit card company because someone was attempting to make a purchase using my credit card in Japan.

Neither the card company nor I ever figured out how the crook had gotten hold of the card number, but it hardly seems to matter. It's probably going to become more prevalent, as thieves continue to try new techniques that are easier and less risky than armed robbery.

My mother refuses to shop online because she's afraid of data theft, but I bet she's used a credit or debit card at Marshalls at least once, so her personal info is therefore just as vulnerable as if she did use her card online, and in the wake of the TJX and Stop & Shop incidents, it's beginning to seem like online stores' data security may be better than that of brick-and-mortar stores.

So what's the answer? Do we return to a cash-only economy? Is that even possible? These days it's kind of difficult to live without a some sort of credit or debit card, but these episodes showed that the infrastructure--banks, credit card companies, and especially retailers--are not doing their part to make our transactions as secure as they can possibly be. To me, this is basic customer service, and should be spelled out right along with a store's return policies. The Web has entities such as VeriSign that assess and certify the security of online stores; perhaps we need something similar for their counterparts in the physical world.

16 May 2007

Extra-Happy Meal

Oh yeah, the week needed a story like this: a kid working at a McDonald's in Illinois hid his pot stash in a Happy Meal box, then gave it to a customer at the drive-up window, along with the food. Story courtesy of Consumerist, one of my favorite sites.

15 May 2007

Junk Drawer

I'd like to say that I haven't posted anything lately because I've been out enjoying springtime. I could say it, but it would be a lie. It's just laziness, and a general lack of ideas. Thus, a few scraps:

—I managed to drink my usual three cups of coffee between 7 and 10 AM (two at home and the third after getting to work), but when I was starting on that third cup I realized that
I'd forgotten to eat breakfast. As a result I was buzzy and hungry all morning, and couldn't concentrate for more than two or three minutes at a stretch. Getting lunch early seemed like the solution, but I guess I was still out of it, because I got mustard all over the cuff of my shirt.

—May is an expensive month: sister's birthday, wife's birthday, Mother's Day gift, Mother's Day dinner, all within the space of two weeks. Consequently I should try to curb some of my usual spending urges for a while. Yeah, we'll see how that goes.

—Yesterday was the Mrs.' birthday; though we had celebrated with some friends on Saturday night, I wanted to mark the actual day by taking her to dinner or something else she would enjoy. But she wasn't feeling well, and has been so stressed out from work that she said even if she was feeling all right, she wouldn't have wanted to go out. So we'll have to hold onto that thought for a bit.

08 May 2007

Personality Plus

I don't write about work, because there isn't really anything to say. I go to work, I do my work, I go home, I come back the next day and resume where I left off. I am left alone to do what I'm supposed to be doing. Work is, thankfully, not a source of stress in my life. Getting to and from work via public transit tends to be more stressful. When I get home, the Mrs. always asks "How was your day?" and I always say "Fine." (And yes, I do ask her about her day, which typically includes large amounts of stress.)

But there is something about work that bothers me. I've been here fifteen months, and everyone has been very welcoming and friendly from day one, except for one person. She happens to be the person who trained me when I started the job, because she did it before me. During that first week she struck me as shy and introverted, and though it was
pretty obvious she wanted to get back to her own work as soon as possible, she did a good job of getting me oriented and up to speed.

But as soon as my training was finished and she went back to her other work, she stopped talking to me. Not even a "hello" if I passed her in the hall. Occasionally I would see her outside the building or on the subway, and she would avoid eye contact and ignore me. She might as well have had a guide dog. And
she's completely normal in her interactions with everyone else in the office, so it's not some generalized personality disorder.

This is how it's been the whole time I've been here, with very rare exceptions. From time to time I have had to email her about something, and her responses are always prompt and polite, as though we had a normal coworker relationship. And a couple of times she has appeared at my cubicle to ask me a question, and again the exchanges were perfectly normal. But we've never had any other sort of conversation, and she still avoids eye contact. We've had roughly eight or ten elevator rides of awkward silence, the kind you have when the other occupant is a total stranger.

Naturally, this bothers me. I've been working for almost thirty years, and I have never experienced anything like this. I have worked with people that I thoroughly disliked, and who disliked me just as much, but we still said hello to each other out of simple civility. Not that I think this coworker is uncivil; I just don't get her. She's breaking the social contract of the workplace, and I don't know why. I have an overwhelming urge to break through her wall of slience and just blurt out "Hi, how's it going?" in the most obnoxiously friendly voice I can muster, just to see what sort of reaction I'd get. But I haven't done it, and I probably won't.

I can handle not being liked, but being ignored? No one likes to be ignored, whatever the reason.

02 May 2007

Following the Money Trail

When I started this blog, I did it as a place to share my opinions, but I also had a slightly higher goal: I wanted to help people become smarter about spending their money. That means not just which brand of widget is best, and which retailer you should buy it from and why, but also about that retailer's values, including where your money goes after you spend it.

With this in mind, please take a minute to read
this article on Consumerist about donations made by corporations and their executives to various political organizations and groups. While I do not consider myself an activist and I have no intention of making this into a political blog, the intersection of politics and commerce is inevitable in our society, and knowledge and awareness are powerful tools. If you believe in buying things like fair trade coffee or eggs from cage-free chickens because of the policies those items represent and uphold, then you should consider what's at work behind some of your other purchases.

It comes as no surprise to me that Steve Jobs gave money to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, but I was surprised to learn that Home Depot and its CEO gave so much money to Republican causes and political action committees. It reminds me of years ago, when the word was you shouldn't go to Domino's Pizza because the company's founder was a staunch pro-life advocate. He sold his interest in the company quite a while ago, and I don't eat at Domino's anyway because there are plenty of other pizza places around and I would prefer to support local businesses, but the point is, it's important to know where your money is going, and you can use it like a vote, by supporting companies whose values align with your own or by choosing not to support companies whose values do not.

I'll bet there are plenty of registered Democrats, and independent voters as well, who have spent big chunks of money on home improvement project materials at Home Depot who might not have done so had they known about the company's donations. Not being a homeowner,
I don't spend a lot of money there, but I did buy two air conditioners there last summer, and if I had known this information at the time, I would have chosen to buy them elsewhere. For now Lowe's is looking like the better bet in the home improvement category, but I'd to want to know what causes and organizations they support as well, before spending money there.