Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Digital technology sucks (but at least Costco is good about returns)

I love how cheap digital devices are getting... but is it just me or are we sacrificing a LOT of quality in the process? In the past two months I've had to return the following shopping list of tech toys:

  • Famous brand MP3 player, after 2 days. It wouldn't hold a charge.
  • Network attached storage after four weeks. Disk drive died.
  • Low-end (but well known brand) USB 2.0 disk drive after less than two weeks. This one was barely even used, it was sitting out on my network for when I finally get around to editing video. Next thing you know: click of death.
  • Digital media player, after 20 minutes. Got it installed and running. Upgraded its firmware (you should see the list of bugs in the shipped 1.0 version...). It died, wouldn't even power up. Yep, 20 minutes to go from open box to a $300 brushed aluminum brick. To add insult to injury, the tech I spoke to told me that I really shouldn't upgrade the firmware without contacting tech support first... which kind of makes me wonder why the setup instructions tell you to upgrade the firmware if it doesn't happen automatically.
  • Don't even get started on the nightmare upgrade process I went through to get newer maps on my GPS navigation unit...

That's well over half the stuff I've bought in the last six months. And (with the exception of the MP3 player, the cheapest item on the list) I haven't been exchanging this stuff, I've been returning it for a refund and either buying a different brand or deciding forget it, the stuff's not ready for primetime. So not only is this costing companies time and money dealing with the returns, its costing them business.

Now I don't think it's me or that I have some kind of digital touch of death -- I am reasonably technical, worked in IT for the past two decades, and I've successfully done stuff like upgrading memory and drives in my desktops and laptops and installing interface cards. But this stuff, which ought to be an embedded system that just works out of the box, seems to be getting very shoddy lately. I don't know if its the rush to beat competitors to market, or the relentless pressure to drive down costs. Or maybe its that a different breed of developer works on these things now that they contain so much software -- a developer with a hacker mentality of "good enough, we'll fix it in release 2" rather than an engineering mentality of "once it's in the field it's a pain to fix, so do it right". Or maybe its just companies that don't know how to measure what this is truly costing them.

But I've learned one important lesson in all this: Buy stuff from Costco because their returns process is completely painless.

There is a small silver lining to this story. Many of these items came with mail-in rebates. And their processes don't seem to be sufficiently integrated to cancel your rebate if you return the item. So I've gotten about $150 for my pain. Which seems about fair.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

The Fractal Bathroom

A friend of mine who has done very well for himself (the old fashioned way, I should add: being smart, working hard, and taking risks on his own good ideas) is selling his large house. I happened to notice the listing in a magazine that specializes in local things I can't afford (I think its called Elan, but frankly they should just rename it Envy) and apparently he has 5.55 bathrooms.

My first reaction was that in all the times I've visited his house I don't think I ever noticed that .05 of a bathroom. Then I thought, wait, this is the man who has everything -- he probably has a fractal bathroom somewhere in the basement, and in reality he has 5.55555... bathrooms, but the magazine insisted in truncating it to 2 decimal places.

The big problem with a fractal bathroom, of course, is that it takes forever to paint. Even though it encloses a finite volume, the walls have infinite surface area...

Monday, October 16, 2006

Foley: A Line Has Been Crossed

I am profoundly disappointed by what the Foley scandal means for US politics, and especially for bipartisanship.

I had been assured by Republican friends of mine that only Democrats have sex scandals, and by Democratic friends that only Republicans have money scandals. So you can imagine how disappointed I was to discover that Republicans, not satisfied with taking Abramoff's money, now want in on the sex scandals too.

No wonder the Democratic party is outraged: up till now, this was the one remaining political domain that they controlled. Unfortunately, this is just one more sign of what happens when one party holds too much power for too long.