A Consumer Rant

There’s nothing like Christmas to bring out consumer angst. Here are a few encounters from the past few days that have really been pissing me off:

1

As far back as I can remember, and until I turned 30ish, most retailers would allow you to exchange items. If you bought something that was damaged, or in the wrong size or color, you just went to the customer service desk, and they’d swap it out for you. But sometime in the past 10 years, most big retailers decided to simply have the customer service desk refund your money and let you pick out a new item, resulting in multiple transactions on your credit\debit card (the original purchase, the refund, and the new purchase).

This works out OK for most things, but it sucks for large purchases… and gifts. If you buy an $800 HDTV with a debit card and get it home and find out that it doesn’t work, the retailer’s “new” policies mean that $1600 is now tied up on your debit card, at least for a few days until the refund goes through.

That sucks, but what really sucks if when you get a gift.

My parents gave me an external hard drive for Christmas. I didn’t open it until I got back home, where I found the drive’s back cover warped. The circuit board where you plug in the power adapter and USB cable was also misaligned, and while it probably could have worked, I’m not trusting my data to a drive that looked like it had some rough handling in transit.

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The Last News Dump of 2009

– You’ve probably seen, or perhaps even purchased, items carrying a Royal Warrant. This is a stamp on the product with the Royal Coat of Arms that usually says “By appointment to Her Majesty the Queen” (“By appointment to HRH The Prince of Wales” or “By appointment to HRH The Duke of Edinburgh” exist, but aren’t nearly as common, especially on products sold in the US). Royal warrants are taken seriously in the UK, and there is a whole system of rules governing their use (example: the Royal Family must purchase a product for five years before it can become eligible to receive a warrant). Royal Warrants are great advertising for companies (“Hey, our product is so great that even the Queen uses it!”), and many use it only as that. Other companies take the Royal Warrant far more seriously. Candy giant Cadbury, first awarded the Royal Warrant by Queen Victoria in 1854, produces a special batch of chocolates for the Royal Family every year. These candy bars, produced on a special production line that lies dormant the rest of the year, are hand delivered to Buckingham Palace, Windsor Castle and Sandringham. They cannot be purchased by anyone else for any price. In fact, this is the first year that the special chocolates were even photographed. This article at the Daily Mail takes a damn interesting look at how the chocolates are made, and the secret world of the Royal Warrant holder.

– People in the United States look at Internet Service Providers (ISPs) as just another utility to be hated along with the power and gas companies. But this isn’t necessarily true in the rest of the world. Some ISPs have fanatical followings in South Korea and France, and this article from Ars Technica looks at some of their practices and talks about how US ISPs could become more user-friendly.

– Speaking of ISPs, this article at Ars talks about how the so-called “bandwidth-hog” might be as fictional as unicorns and leprechauns. Heavy downloaders are often the excuse ISPs use to throttle service, increase rates, and\or block services on their networks. Benoit Felten, a Yankee Group analyst, seems to think it’s much ado about nothing.

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The Wisdom of Crowds

I was hanging around ESPN’s SportsNation site yesterday when I came across this:

SportsNation Orangle Bowl
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Let’s hope that the hive mind is right! After all, they were certainly right about this one:

SportsNation Yankees
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The Heart’s Memory (Revisited)

For centuries, Western doctors have assumed that all your memories reside only in your brain. However, in this article I talked about a curious bunch of people who, after receiving heart transplants, suddenly developed certain cravings and personality traits that could be linked to their donors.

A prim and proper librarian type, for example, received a heart transplant from a man who loved football, swore like a sailor, and loved chicken wings. Within weeks of her transplant, the woman began inexplicably eating wings while watching football and using words she hardly even knew before, much less actually used. Needless to say, the woman hadn’t shown any interest in football, wings, or swearing before the transplant.

It seems that a new case has come to light. Australian David Waters was given a heart transplant due to a “stiffening of the heart ventricles”. His donor was an 18 year-old man named Kaden Delaney, who was left brain dead after an automobile accident.

Kaden’s favorite snack was something called “Burger Rings” (think “burger-flavored Funyuns”). He was well-known for loving the snack, and was frequently seen eating them by friends and family. After the transplant, Waters developed an overwhelming urge for the snack, something he hadn’t had before. According to Waters, Burger Rings were “all I seemed to want to eat after my surgery”.

Of course, mainstream doctors dismiss Water’s claim as coincidence, but the phenomenon (if it exists) is known as cellular memory, and it’s pretty fascinating.

Tuesday’s News Roundup

Can you tell I have a backlog of stuff in my Inbox?

– Roy Disney, nephew of Walt Disney, died last Wednesday. He was 79. Roy tended to stay out of the spotlight, but that doesn’t mean that his fierce loyalty to Disney hid in the shadows. When Walt’s son-in-law Ron Miller took the company “in the wrong direction” (in Roy’s view), he led a shareholder’s revolt in 1984 that had Miller replaced with Michael Eisner. When Eisner, in Roy’s view, started neglecting the company’s theme parks and 2-D animation division, Disney again led a shareholders revolt that saw Eisner, one of the most powerful people in Hollywood, retire from the company in 2005. It’s hard to say what will happen to Disney now; I’m not much of a Disney fan, but Roy was the the last of the “old school” Disney board members, and perhaps the last one to have “Walt’s touch”. He will be missed.

– You probably heard last week about how certain militants in Iraq were using a $30 piece of software to spy on the Air Force’s Predator drones. This happens because the Predators’ video feeds use no encryption - none at all. Apparently the Air Force has known about this “bug” since the early 1990s, but hasn’t been able to do much about it, given the proprietary nature of the hardware inside the drones. This article at Ars Technica talks about how the TV sets and DVDs in your home have more encryption than the US military’s spy planes do.

– Last week, the congregants of St. Andrew’s Church of Mt. Pleasant - the largest Episcopal church in the Diocese of South Carolina - voted overwhelmingly to leave the Episcopal Church and join the Anglican Church in North America. Out of 902 total votes, 838 voted to leave TEC and join ACNA, 58 voted to remain in TEC, 4 forms were returned unmarked and 2 abstained. Combine this with September’s victory for All Saints Church at Pawleys Island in the South Carolina Supreme Court (who ruled that the parish’s property belonged to All Saints Parish, Waccamaw Inc. and not to the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina) and it’s looking like a great time to be an Anglican in South Carolina. If only North Carolina would get on the bandwagon, too!

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Tuesday’s Hottie: Mila Kunis

Mila Kunis, known mostly for her role as Jackie Burkhart on That 70’s Show, was born in 1983 in Chernivtsi, Ukraine (which was part of the Soviet Union at the time). Her family moved to Los Angeles in 1991, and Kunis immediately enrolled in acting classes, even though she could barely speak English.

After a brief stint modeling and doing commercials for Lisa Frank, Barbie, and Payless Shoes, she had minor roles in Days of our Lives and 7th Heaven, as well as a bit part playing Angelina Jolie’s younger sister in the film Gia. All this led to an audition for That 70’s Show, where she lied to show staff and told them that she was 18 (she was only 14 at the time). The staff liked her performance so much that they overlooked her little lie.

She has since starred in several films, and took over the role of Meg from Lacey Chabert on Family Guy. She has dated Home Alone star Macaulay Culkin since 2002. She is also revered in the geek community for her self-professed love of video games, especially World of Warcraft.

Click the picture to enlarge:

Mila Kunis
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See more pictures of her at Moe Jackson here.