The incredible cost of free

There’s an old adage “what you get for free, you pay for twice”. And while this story doesn’t per-se make me angry, there is a pearl of frustration that I feel about the consumer society that I clearly cause.

About 15 years ago I purchased a display cabinet from IKEA. These modular units are great, allowing you to combine multiple modules into any number of shapes and sizes. At the time I purchased this unit I had a wall about 20 feet long which I decided to clad as one single display unit, and IKEA’s units were a perfect fit. Over the years I’ve moved house a few times and this unit has come with me.

About eight years ago I decided to replace my TV, and the most important criteria at the time was simply to find one that fit the space in the display unit as closely as possible. I was able to find a 44 inch rear projection unit that were a perfect fit, with no more than half an inch to spare at the sides and top, it looked great, so it was duly purchased and has performed wonderfully all this time.

Well a little while ago a little red light turned on below a label that said replace bulb. I no longer had the TV’s manual so popped onto the internet to look up the model number and identify the bulb. When I found the page, a notice popped up saying there was a class action settlement against this model of TV, and that if I called them they would possibly replace all the insides of my TV for free(which included the rather expensive bulb). I called the number and lo and behold my TV qualified. I local service center called me back and arranged a call to do their magic.

Well my TV was integrated into my display cabinet, so I decided to take the TV off the unit to give them clear access. Since they were basically giving me a new TV (except for the plastic surround), I felt duty bound to make their lives as easy as possible. But when I took the TV off the cabinet, I noticed that the wood of the cabinet was starting to crumble (fifteen years of great service and multiple disassemblies and assemlbies had taken their toll).

After some deliberation we decided that maybe after all these years of sterling service, maybe it was time to retire the IKEA units, in favor of something a little more interesting.

We found some incredible cabinets made from reclaimed Brazilian rainforest wood (actually it looks like it was reclaimed from a rainforest hut, but looks really cool).

Since we were now replacing the cabinet we thought maybe it was the right time to upgrade to a nice new LED flat screen TV, and we fell in love with a superb 55 inch model. These models are so thin, that it seemed a shame to mount them on a stand. They just look so much better mounted on the wall. So we had the TV wall mounted and the cables buried in the wall.

So then we had to redecorate the wall. We found some awesome wallpaper made from grass, and with the new cabinets this looks fantastic. But now we didn’t really want to see all the technical paraphanalia that’s associated with the TV, so we implemented a 50 feet HDMI cable routed around the room and placed all the tech on a rack on the other side of the room, hidden away in a corner. And I had to add more tech to ensure that the remote controls still worked.

We love the new tech setup, and we love the newly decorated room. We didn’t need to do it, but the free bulb for the TV forced us!

At the end of the day the free upgraded TV cost us ten thousand. It started with free and ended up being anything but.

We gave away the old reconditioned TV to friends, and I expect in 10 years when the bulb light comes on again, consumerism will consume them as well.

Non, je ne regrette rien

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Contractors live in a parallel universe.

Is it just me? Or do the sciences have a different set of definitions in the parallel universe where plumbers, carpenters, builders and general contractors exist?

It seems that in the parallel universe where contractors live (lets call it the bodgeitverse) space/time and the basic principles of mathematics work differently.

For example weeks clearly have more days. So when a builder tells you a job will take two weeks, he is obviously assuming that each week has eighteen days.

And when they say they will start on Monday, they really mean the Monday after the eighteen-day week you are currently in.

Also it’s clear that the term “I will be there at nine tomorrow morning” assumes that the number 9 in base-builder is the 15th number in the series.

And is that isn’t proof enough of the existence of the bodgeitverse the existence of plumbermatics clinches the deal. I challenge you to try are work out the way in which a plumber calculates their bill. Clearly there is a gravitational well that sits between deposits and balances. Where the effect of the deposit is diminished by the square of the distance across the page. This can be the only explanation for why a 25% deposit generally has a 15% impact on the final amount.

Of course other contractors also clearly reside in the bodgeitverse. I speak here of cable company employees. When a cable company gives you a four hour window for when the cable guy is due to turn up, you know that he will turn up in the last 30 seconds of that window, unless you planned for that, in which case he will turn at the exact moment when you are least ready to deal with him. It’s a bodgeitverse form of causality.

There are of course times when the bodgeitverse does intersect directly with our universe outside of contractors. One way to force this exchange is to wash your car on a sunny day, it guarantees rain!
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If anyone say’s “There is only one true religion” walk away.

Having grown up from two halves of a single cell into a complex ecosystem I feel entirely proficient to answer any question about anything. Of course I have no idea how correct my answers will be.

It amazes me (and angers me) that anyone believes that they have an ultimate answer to anything, and yet every day I’m bombarded with a mix of competing absolutes from politicians and religious nuts, and people who have been influenced by politicians and religious nuts.

Life can be hard, and for the multiple millennia that pre-date us is was clearly harder than it is today. Making people act in unison was (and is) a fundamental of civilization. Today we persuade people to act for the good of society (by working hard and not killing, stealing or having sex with their siblings) by threats of punishment (prison, fines etc) for bad behavior, and houses, clothes, food, entertainment, good health etc. for good behavior. It works pretty well if people are educated in the ways of society.

In the past it was much easier to coalesce people by creating a framework of things that would happen to you if you didn’t follow the rules, and nice things that you could look forward to if you did. Living in the past was tough, and a good deal of it was not that much fun, so creating a dream of better times after you died just made so much sense.

There never was any evidence for this dream future, but if you questioned it, limbs could easily be removed (as could innards), so questioning was curtailed pretty easily.

But here’s the thing; just because people under duress were made to believe ridiculous things for hundreds of years, does not means that you need to believe them when the threat of being burnt alive while tied to a stake is removed.

Evolution is a proven explanation for how complex viable environments are created from a large number of simplistic components. It makes sense and can be seen clearly by experiment. In fact using the principles of the evolutionary process allows a very clear understanding of how things work at a chemical, physical and biological level. The word “theory” is placed in sentences because the scientific process understands the nature of truth, and that it is not absolute.

Religious nuts and politicians know how to manipulate language to avoid having their powerbase undermined by inconvenient facts. Clearly it’s much better to have people give you things and do what you say, than to have them not give you things and not do what you say.

So rather than spend time helping humanity continue to improve scientifically, religious nuts and politicians will always prefer to limit change to those areas that personally benefit them.

No one person or group has a truth that is more viable than any other person or group. And as soon as any person or group tries to force their way on anyone else they are instantly wrong.

Having said this, there are some wonderful life lessons to be learned from all the major and minor religions. I love the sikh ideas of helping others, and the Judea-christian-islamic ideas of learning and ethics, along with the Buddhist concepts of mind and the really cool alien overlord ideas of scientology. But I’m not a fan of any of the restrictive ideals of all of these cults, or of the destructive and absolute nature of some of their most fervent followers and leaders.

There is clearly documented and examinable archaeological evidence that all of the major concepts in all of the major religions were part of peoples teaching well before the current religions were in place. This shows to me that the concepts were used as part of ancient peoples education systems to teach a code of ethics and behavior to allow for groups to work together for the ongoing benefit of society.

It is well documented (at least on the history channel) that the bible (basis of so many religions today) was crafted over many hundreds of years by scholars and it truly is an incredible piece of human work.

Just because something was created a long time ago and still exists does not give it extraordinary powers over people. Studying the stories that have been used for millennia to teach ethics, philosophy, morality and how to deal with complex situations is a good thing. Treating any single view as the only possible view, and allowing for no discussion is plain nuts.

I have some very dear friends who are deeply religious and incredibly intelligent. I respect their beliefs and have had the honor of celebrating many times with them, and honoring the memories of loved ones that that are no longer with them. And I have been proud to have them share in my life events in the same way. They have never tried to convince me of the perfection of their religion and I’ve never tried to convince them of mine. Quite honestly it’s never even been a conversation.

There are nut cases on street corners that I have passed, and the odd person with a shaved head and a pony tail, or well dressed youngsters with name badges that have tried to convince me of their unique truth, and I treat them all with the respect they deserve (not a lot).

Anyone crazy enough to believe that any old book is entirely true, is crazy enough to kill innocent people. There have been many examples of this through history. What I don’t understand is how anyone who purports to believe there is a god(s), can accept that their particular version of god(s) is better than every other version, and that their god(s) expects everyone who isn’t buying into their particular set of edicts is inferior and must therefore die or be damned.

At this point it all just fails. And the only possible answer is that it’s all total bullshit.

Sitting around and bullshitting with your mates has always been a good thing to do, and sometimes out of the bullshit you can have a good or even great idea (and it passes the time), just remember it’s bullshit and stop yourself if you feel you’re taking it too seriously.

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I’m still angry about the salt and pepper war – impossible to win

Throughout all time there has always been a clear definition between right and wrong, good and bad, cleaver and stupid, Mets and Yankees, Spurs and Arsenal. And for all time it has been right that saltshakers always have less holes than pepper shakers.

Some may not agree with my hypothesis, but these people are entirely wrong!

My wife and I have had this highly intellectual argument going on for some time (it feels like for all time), and I have had the chance to prove my case both physically and via documentation on numerous occasions, only for her to find a weakness in my proof. Personally I’ve found these so-called “weaknesses” to be irrational and flawed.

Let me give you a few examples:

I contest that salt pots should always have less holes than pepper pots, and I have in my possession a set of pots that prove this. One pot has written on it “a dash of salt” and this pot has one hole. While the pepper pot, which has eight holes, has the worlds “a sprinkle of pepper”. Clear evidence of the truth of my argument!

My wife of course points out that these pots are made in England, and hence are wrong, because the English have no idea of how to use salt and pepper (as proven by the average English cuisine) and clearly should not be used as a guide for good condementing. She does make a good argument.

As further evidence, I turned to the worlds only salt and pepper museum, which happens to be in America. It can be found at http://thesaltandpeppershakermuseum.com/Home.aspx

This establishment of all things sodium chloride and flowering vine of the family Piperaceae, have prominently displayed on their website the number one question that they get asked about salt and pepper pots. “Which Shaker has the most (or least) amount of holes, Salt or Pepper?” and these oracles give a very clear answer:

“The shaker with the least amount of holes is for Salt…and the shaker with more holes is for Pepper. An easy way to remember is that salt is bad for you so you need less!’

That seems to be like a positive, expert opinion in my favor. Yet my wife then points out that this museum is actually in Tennessee, and no one in their right mind either lives in Tennessee or believes anything that anyone who lives in Tennessee says.

Again she does make a good argument.

The search for the truth continues.

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Egotistical games developers make me angry

I enjoy a good computer game. Most of the games I’ve played tend to be reasonably anti-social, either you blast the crap out of everything that moves or they are very competitive (such as sports games). The exception to this has been the collaborative, non-violent games. Yep I know how can a game be any good it it’s not competitive and there is no gore. Well it turns out that if you add Lego into the mix this can be achieved.

And the best thing about these non-aggressive, U-rated, lego collaborative games is that my wife loves to play them with me. All of a sudden the PS3 is no longer the new golf when it comes to marriages (even though my missus loves to play the ancient and honorable sticks and eggs as well).

But and there is a huge BUT here. These lego games are no longer just about running around a pseudo 3D world of bricks filled will little Lego characters, now they are filled with absolutely horrible little movie vignettes. It can now feels like fifteen minutes from turning on the console to breaking your first lego brick while you watch corny and tedious segments from a movie rendered with the worst possible levels of creative acting and script work. And the creators of these games in their annoying style don’t even give you the option to skip these scenes.

Acting is a skill best left to professionals, it’s an art, and even most of its leading practitioners are not so good at it. So when games developers try, it’s not a pleasant experience. And forcing you to watch their work before you can progress to the actual game play, is beyond frustrating.

These little movie scenes are now getting longer and worse. And in the latest cut of this genre (Lego Batman 2) the characters have progressed from making little grunts to actually talking, and this is infinitely worse. This may be the last Lego game we play unless they either; get better at movie making or just add a skip option to the video scenes.

How difficult can it be to actually think about your user when you create? I may be forced to retreat to the anti-social single play destroy everything that moves games in the future, and my wife will have to just play solitaire on the ipad. Either that or well have to forget computer games and actually do something non-digital together (gasp).

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I’m Angry about the baiting and switchery of air travel.

What was included is now an extra. They now charge you extra for checked bags, that’s been happening for a while of course, and we have sort of become used it. It’s sort of like getting used to being punched in the face, I’m sure if you knew that every time you left your house someone would lay a fist between your eyes, you would on some level get used to it, but I cannot imagine ever getting to the point where you accept it as reasonable. That’s how I feel about being charged for carrying luggage on a plane.

You’re going somewhere a significant distance from where you live, and you going there for more that a few hours. It’s reasonable to expect to carry luggage, and it is unreasonable to be charged an extra lump of readies to do this. Okay if your taking well above the normal, I can see the cost issue and a fair charge is reasonable. But there must be a reasonable expectation of some luggage, there used to be! Some airlines are still “allowing” you to carry the first bag for free, but the path has been forged and this is slowly being eroded.

It’s as unreasonable as being charged extra for your carry-on bag, or being changed extra for a seat with enough room to be able to sit for the length of the flight without losing the feeling below the knees because there isn’t now enough room for an average set of legs. Or being charged extra for using the dunnie, or for being charged extra for a crap meal. All of these are being tested by airlines today.

And it seems that the airlines have realized this, since one thing is unreasonable and people have accepted it, then why not charge for every other possible unreasonable thing. They are trying it out, and guess what the flying public (having no choice) is accepting it.

For most flights you don’t choose the airline, you choose the destination. And given that there is normally very little choice as to which airline you use to go from A to B, you just accept their crappy service.

On the few occasions where I have a choice of airline, and given that normally the prices are almost identical, I choice based on which airlines have screwed me least in the past. It seems that the best an airline of today can offer is to suck least.

And what about the fuel surcharges. The moment crude oil prices increased the airlines passed on the cost to the passengers. But as the prices came down again it seems they forgot to reduce or remove these surcharges. For many flights now the surcharges and extra costs actually are greater than the posted cost of the flight itself.

I know airlines are having a very tough time, but I suspect this is not going to be fixed by screwing the customer. Paraphrasing the words of a very astute management consultant (Peter Drucker) “The purpose of a business is to create and keep customers, only when they are doing this well should they should look at cost an efficiency”. I’d suggest the airline industry has lost sight of the customer.

There are some examples of excellence in the airline industry, and these airlines are the ones that are profitable, safe, efficient and have happy customers, but I think they are focused on keeping their customers happy and then the others accolades are a consequence of that.


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When Barnes and Noble go out of business it will be my fault

I love to read, but finding the right book or group of books is challenging. I find the New York Times bestseller list pretty useless, as it’s written for such a broad audience that 99.5% of its recommendations just don’t do it for me. I read the book section every week and normally find a couple that sound good, but when I start to read the books they were written about, I generally find that in long form the stories either suffer from annoying writers traits or just are tedious.

I’m not a fan of overly flowery descriptions of people or places, or tedious descriptions of family trees, so books about girls with dragon tattoos are totally out. Basically I like stories with guns, tech, weird worlds or things that go too fast. I think that’s a pretty standard bloke requirement for reading matter. But it can be incredibly hard to find good ones. Obviously anything by Gaiman or Pratchett works, but outside of that I find I need to evaluate books carefully.

Once I’ve found a book that sounds along the right kind of a line, I find the best method of confirming if I’ll enjoy reading it from cover to cover, is to randomly open it at a page and read a couple of paragraphs. This ensures that you avoid books that have a good start, but fail by the third chapter. And ensures that you are very unlikely to ruin the story, as randomly selected paragraphs by themselves don’t often tell you who did it or why.

To do this I visit actual bookstores. And since the only chain left seems to be Barnes and Noble, I do visit their stores and trawl their bookshelves. But I never ever purchase books from them, with the exception of the odd technical manual that I may want quickly to fix a specific issue, and am willing to waive the lower price of Amazon for immediacy.

There are several reasons why they don’t get my business. Firstly they are expensive unless you join their loyalty discount program. And since this costs a yearly fee, and I have no faith in their medium to long term viability, I have not done so.

But secondly I read most of my books now on an Amazon Kindle, and not a Barnes and Noble nook. And while travelling around the city or on planes I download audio books from audible.com. So instead of purchasing books at B&N I just photograph the desired book covers on my phone, and pick them up later online.

Every time I do this I know I am killing a little bit of the last bookstore chain in the country. And that one day when they are gone, I will regret their passing, but the simple fact is, I don’t want to carry physical books around with me, and their online services are less suitable for me that the others I do use.

I love real books, and I think I’ll always prefer reading from paper than in any of the various e-forms (my secrets out). But e just works better for portability and accessibility. It’s there when I need it and it’s cheaper to boot.

With a kindle book I can read it on the kindle, my laptop, my phone or my ipad and even move between all the devices. With audible books it’s on my phone, in my car, on my iPod and even in the bathroom when I’m having a bath.

Barnes and Noble do offer me a great service, for which I pay them absolutely nothing. They will die and I will miss them. Sad but true.

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I’m angry about the new slave trade

The average wealthy (or at least not poor) American has a wonderful cheap supply of slave labor, and the great thing is that these new slaves have even less rights than the ones of centuries ago (yes I know this is absurd, and insulting, but think about rights and social values in the context of history). You do need to pay these new slaves, but a salary, which is only a small fraction of the minimum wage.

You don’t need to offer them any job security, health benefits or holiday pay or care in any way about their welfare. Hire as many as you need for a pittance of pay, stop paying them and they are not your problem. If you’re wealthy and happy to not think about the ethics this is a great deal.

But then along comes some bleeding hearth ethical types and they want to give your slaves rights. What the hell!

Of course we all use different words to describe this situation. If you’re a bleeding heart you call these people immigrant workers, while if your making hay while the sun shines you call them illegals.

The bottom line is that the deck is stacked against these workers. The very people they come to work for are doing everything they can to keep them status-less, while the people who are trying to help them are almost powerless.

If people who come to America for economic reasons (and didn’t follow the legal process) were ever to get legal work status, that would require them to be paid at least a minimum wage, and get the same protections as any other humans in the workplace. That would be very expensive.

Eventually it has to happen, slave labor is not a socially acceptable practice, and people are just starting to be called out on it.

Obviously it’s wrong for people to come to any country without following the approved process, but I feel that the very people who are hiring these workers are in effect directly supporting this illegal practice.

A simple fix is always to punish those who are hiring illegal workers. When the cost of breaking the law outweighs the cost of following it, then people (however unethical) tend to either follow the law or go underground.

Making it easier for people who are needed to perform work, to get legal work status, along with making it harder to hire illegal workers, seems like a reasonable course of action.

Yes it will make the costs of farming, manufacturing and construction increase (as wages and benefits will increase), but it’s one part of the process of fixing the new slavery.

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They must be laundering money

It seems to me that half the stores on Madison Avenue and Lexington Avenue in the Sixties and Seventies in New York City and fronts for money launderers.

Each of these stores seems to be open for about half an hour a month, stocks incredibly expensive tat made of a mix of semi-precious metals, wood, plastic and baubles that no one could honestly think are “that” valuable, and clearly has no practical purpose.

I believe there is a special price tag made for these stores that is extra long to deal with the additional digits required for the prices.

I walk past some of these stores on a regular basis, and for several years I’ve noticed exactly the same items in their darkened depths. They seem to be dust free, so I assume someone visits them regularly.

I can only assume that these are not legitimate businesses but are in actual fact fronts for some sort of nefarious money transactions. Either that of there is some incredible tax break to be had from running a business from a shop front with a lease that would take the GDP of a few small countries (I’m talking about the places that are not yet bankrupt of course).

There could be an entirely different reason for these stores existence. Maybe there is even a market for their goods! It’s possible that given that the apartments in this area range in price from the low millions to a place where the dreams of avarice seem inadequate, that maybe the dwellers at the higher end of this demographic actually buy this stuff.

It’s a mystery to me.
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What the hell is going on with healthcare?

It seems to me that there is nothing more deeply personal than your health and that of the ones you love and care about. If you get sick, you don’t just ‘want’ to get better, it will become the most important thing in your life. It’s emotional, and will take precedent over everything else, and it should.

This means that any contract that you enter into about healthcare is loaded with stress and duress, and the basics of contract law are that any contract entered into under these conditions is not fair and equitable, and as such is not a fair contract. This may seem technical but it simply means that those papers a hospital or a doctor makes you sign saying that you are personally responsible for any costs not covered by your insurance shouldn’t be allowed. But yet they are.

The insurance companies, the hospitals, the lawyers and the doctors have created a special legal framework that is entirely weighted to their benefit.

And to add insult to this situation the American system means that the costs you are charged are list price, whereas the insurance companies get a massive discount on the bits they cover.

The costs of medical care in America are incredible, and the quality of the service is directly related to the amount of money you can pay.

Every doctor swears the Hippocratic oath. I’ve read this oath and frankly I feel that most US doctors are not living up to the spirit of the thing

Here’s a couple of sentences from the oath, they I’m sure your will agree are not the normal practice here in America :

“I will apply, for the benefit of the sick, all measures that are required, avoiding those twin traps of overtreatment and therapeutic nihilism.

“I will prevent disease whenever I can, for prevention is preferable to cure.”

In this country today people die because they cannot afford to get timely treatment, others go bankrupt because the costs that are not covered by insurance companies consume their entire worth and then some. Millions of people don’t have adequate or even any coverage, either because they cannot qualify due to pre-existing conditions or just cannot afford the monthly costs and still be able to eat.

Some say that for these people there is always the option of going to the emergency room. Well there are two huge issues with this. Firstly the emergency room will just treat them to the point where they are not going to die on that particular day; this is not an answer to a problem, but a stop gap. And secondly the costs that are incurred by doing this are just passed onto the ones who do have insurance, as increased premiums which have the effect of making premiums higher and so making them ever less affordable, exacerbating the situation.

The issue (as I see it) is the huge amounts of money involved. No one wants to give up his or her part of this gravy train. But it is clearly unsustainable.

The concept of reform in healthcare driven by government seems to be the only way to break this logjam.

But the size of the powerbase involved has so far warped the political process beyond anything reasonable. They are many great improvements within the healthcare changes that President Obama has lead. But it is just a small step on a very long road, and some critical elements of any good plan are missing or just wrong.

The cost of healthcare is far too high, and the quality available (on average) is far too low. We need lower drug costs, medical services driven by results and not on a per service basis. And we need to trust that doctors are doing the best they can, by us accepting that suing doctors is not the first step in fixing a mistake.

Healthcare that helps avoid medical issues by preventative support has been proven to be the most cost effective and rewarding way to maximize the quality of life.

This is a very hard problem to solve, but it must be improved. When politicians use any change or proposed change as a political weapon, rather than trying to work together to find the best solution, they are failing everyone.

We all deserve better.

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