Oct 252007

Here’s a fascinating piece discussing how fixed prices on books in Germany was actually pushing prices down (contrary to economic theory), while supporting a wide range of booksellers.

When I was last in Germany, apart from my usual beef about German booksellers not taking credit cards, I found no reason to complain about the range of books that was available. Children’s books are more expensive than I’m used to here, but a lot of that is also because most children’s books are only available in hardback and thus inherently more expensive. Paperbacks seemed reasonably priced in general, and of good typographical quality.

Peter Brantley has some questions at the end of his piece, which I think can be applied not only to books, but also television, news, indeed many aspects of what is commonly called “culture”. When the mass media and mass entertainment industry are desperately trying to increase ratings by catering to the fads and whims of the mass market, is this a “race to the bottom” as has been postulated? Is the long tail sufficient to enable people with diverse interests (and that’s all of us at some stage or another) to have those needs met, those itches scratched? How do people find those groups, if they don’t know what to look for?

Choice is important, knowing that you have choices is even more important. It’s a bit like free speech.

Oct 072007

I know why it happened, but it still strikes me as odd, the fact that the goalposts kept moving, as it were, with copyright. And it’s weird no matter whether the copyright is there to give other people rights to use, copy and modify the work, or rights to the author to protect and profit from their work. In other areas of the law, the general rule is that what counts is the law at the time. It’s only illegal if it was illegal at the time the offence was committed, for example (the major exception being crimes against humanity). Even patents are valid for a set period of time, and companies know how long that will be when they apply for the patent (hence all the pharmaceutical tricks with minor modifications that they hope will be just enough to get a new patent on). Only in copyright, that I’m aware of, has it been the case that the period of validity has been so massively changed and applied retroactively. From 21 years (see History of Copyright to the death of the author plus 50-75 years, depending on the country you live in and some convoluted dependencies. And then there’s the famous extension by which Mickey Mouse would have been in the public domain by now, but won’t be for a while yet.

It just seems odd to me, the fact that copyright is the exception to the general rule. But maybe it just seems odd to me.

Sep 122007

I’ve written in this blog before about UPS and their brokerage fees. I just today had another example. I ordered something from the U.S. (knitting gadgets I haven’t found in stores in Canada) and the order was $US50. Works out to about $53 Canadian at current rates. The brokerage fee that UPS charged me to bring it into Canada was $29.55 plus GST. That plus the normal GST of $6.85 (to which I have no objection) brought the total charge to $38.18. On goods worth $52.73. When I called up UPS to ask what was going on, I was told that’s the fee. Nothing I can do about it. Except, of course, for making sure that I never ship via UPS. Oh yes, I did email the seller of the goods to warn her of the problem and ask her to not ship via UPS for her Canadian customers. And my local shipping store, which used to be an MBE and is now a “UPS Store”, will suffer as well, since they have to use UPS to ship anything outside of Canada (within Canada they still have some choice). Not that I ship a lot, but when I do, it won’t be UPS if I can possibly avoid it.

If you want the gory details, they’re here. $19.45 fee, plus $4.25 COD fee, plus a $5.85 bond fee because I didn’t prepay the brokerage fee. Adds up to $29.55.

Apr 242007

When I was at university in Auckland, one guy said to me that he hadn’t realized he was sexist until he met me. I’ve always found discrimination based on the biological capability of bearing children to make about as much sense as discrimination based on eye colour. It seems much of the world doesn’t agree, preferring prejudging abilities to the hard work of figuring out real, rather than presumed, capabilities. A lot of discrimination is simply not thinking, accepting the movie or television view of the world and the roles that women and men (or for that matter, people not of western european extraction) have in it.

There’s quite a lot of sexism in technology. One woman I know hates starting a new job, since, as she says, it takes six months to convince the guys I know how to turn on the light. Shelagh Callahan told me of an experience she had doing booth duty at a conference. She was starting to explain something to this guy when he interrupted her, said she didn’t know enough and he knew Dr Callahan, the leading expert on this topic, and he (Dr Callahan) had a different opinion. At which someone standing next to him suggested he look at Shelagh’s name badge. I’ve had my fair share of condescending males assume I wouldn’t understand what they’re talking about or be able to contribute anything of value to a technical discussion. One could argue that most women wouldn’t understand a technical discussion, but that’s no excuse for the assumption.

Of course, this problem isn’t limited to technology. A female lawyer friend of mine takes some pains to dress differently to the way secretaries dress, for example, so it’s clear she’s a lawyer and not a secretary. She says it’s been interesting watching the development of some men, who at university assumed everyone was a professional and treated them all equally, but once out in the legal workforce started treating men and women differently, assuming women were secretaries and men were lawyers. With the large number of women graduating from law school these days that should change. Whether the practice of pushing women lawyers off into family court (“you’re so good at being understanding”) where they earn less than criminal court lawyers changes soon is an interesting question.

There are lots of aspects to sexism, quite a few where people don’t understand why I find them irritating, or even upsetting. As an example, sending mail addressed to Mr and Mrs {husband’s name}. Having people assume married people share a surname is not unreasonable, but assuming we also share a first name is. To me it smacks of Victorian-era treatment of women, where they were an appendage of the husband, not beings with separate identities. I guess it seems petty to worry about these sorts of things when women in so many countries have it so much worse, but on the other hand sexism creates an environment that is not welcoming. If you don’t feel your presence is valued in a society, then you’re not going to be a full part of that society.

Nov 152006

I see Dave Shea has been explaining why he doesn’t typically order goods online; I’ve ordered lots of goods online and had mixed experiences. I usually only buy online if 1) I can’t find what I’m looking for locally, or 2) it’s substantially cheaper than buying locally. I also make sure of warranty implications for anything I buy that might need one (e.g., my Tungsten).

I tend to give the nod to Canadian retailers because of the hassles Dave talks about and also because I like to support local or semi-local small businesses (although I have bought enough at Amazon that the regular “you might be interested in” emails give a remarkably consonant view into my current interests). I buy books at Amazon.com if I’m not in a hurry to get them and if they’re cheaper, including shipping, than buying the same books locally. This is often the case right now since books have the price printed on the back, and the Canadian dollar is currently worth quite a lot more compared to the US dollar than when lots of the books were printed.

Although I haven’t had anything shipped by them for some time, I agree with Derek Miller, who advises avoiding UPS if at all possible; I’ve found UPS in the past to be very quick to charge double fees if two boxes in the same shipment are labelled with the total (they charge as if each box had the total value). What I do to try to get around that problem is to either call or email the place I’m ordering from if I think there’s a chance they might put things into more than one box, and discuss the issue with them. The result is that I haven’t had that particular problem for a few years now. Companies that don’t answer the phone or email don’t get my custom.

Recent experiences that I’ve had with ordering from outside Canada:

  • books from a couple of small retailers in the US coming via Canada Post: no extra charges
  • two baby slings hand-made by a small retailer in the US coming via Canada Post: no extra charges
  • quite a few books from Amazon.de coming through Canada Post: charged GST and associated other fees about half the time
  • books from Amazon.com coming via Canada Post: occasionally charged GST etc. If you request priority shipping, Amazon collects an Import Fees Deposit to cover the various charges (I guess to save time in delivery)
  • buying a humidifier from Venta Airwasher: this is a longer story. I called up to order rather than using the website, to discuss the delivery issues. They charged me GST and when I said I found that odd since they’re a US store, they assured me everything would be fine. And to call back and let them know if it wasn’t. Sure enough, the humidifier (great humidifier, BTW) showed up with no extra charges and I was pleasantly surprised. Until the bill from Fedex arrived in the mail a week later. I called the company, complained, they said they’d take care of it, I called Fedex to tell them what was happening, didn’t pay the bill, and haven’t heard anything in the year since, so I assume Venta did take care of it.

In the unexpected-but-in-the-end-ok category: I ordered a DVD from BBC Canada, and was charged the normal GST etc. The problem here was that they shipped the DVD from the US, and Canada Post promptly charged me $12 for GST, duties, etc., despite the envelope having a “GST paid” stamp on it. I called BBC Canada to complain and they credited my credit card with the $12. I hope they got the money back from Revenue Canada; at least I didn’t have to pay.

Oct 032006

I see from the TSA website that we’re now allowed small quantities of liquids on board flights in the U.S.A., and I assume other countries will also start allowing these items. And knitting needles and books are still allowed, so we’ll have something to do on the flights. The thought of a long flight to Australia or Europe with nothing to do was not pleasant…

And you can now buy cans of drink again in the secure boarding areas. I never understood that particular ban, I must admit. If you think about it, whoever decided on that ban ascribed an ability to plan and execute that far exceeds anything anyone is likely to pull off without being found out somewhere along the way. To get some sort of liquid explosive into a can of soft drink (pop) in a vending machine in the secure area would be hard enough, but then making sure the right person gets to that particular can without anybody else accidentally getting in first seems impossible to me, if you postulate that the person who is meant to get the can has to act normal so as not to attract attention. And then making sure the can doesn’t leak at any stage, particularly when it goes thump into the tray… Overall I think the risk of someone making a bomb out of ingredients passed along in that way is infinitesimal. Anyone that organized would choose other, easier methods. Bruce Schneier calls this security theater; his blog should be required reading for whomever sets the rules as well as those having to carry them out. For the rest of us, particularly those subject to the rules, his articles show clear thinking. For example, this piece discussing the airplane security measures and how the London terrorists who started the liquids scare were apprehended. Highly recommended reading.

/* ]]> */