Wednesday, January 25, 2012

My New Curfew

A few weeks ago, I was without internet or cable for nearly 36 hours. It was a mildly frustrating experience to say the least. I found plenty of things to do, but I kept thinking "Oh, I can do this-- Wait, I need the internet for that." I couldn't check my bank account, check on prescription refills, or watch Netflix or Hulu. It was a little disturbing to realize exactly how much I relied on the internet for actual important things.

On the other hand, I was productive. And since then, I've started trying to stay off the internet on Sundays. I go through and make sure I've responded to or otherwise dealt with all emails, Facebook messages, and so on. My latest thing is to also mark everything read in my Google Reader because a lot of the things I follow are somewhat time sensitive, so hanging on to them for a month in hopes of getting through the 1000+ unread items is pointless, since it's old news by then and I've probably heard it somewhere else by that point anyway.

I've also added a no internet after midnight rule. (Except tonight, apparently, since it's 1AM and I'm typing away.) Overall, I'm pretty happy with it. I'm not addicted to the internet. To borrow the old saying, I'm not an addict, I can quit whenever I want to. The problem is that I don't want to quit. (I also had this problem with Sims, for the record.) I can't count the number of times where I've looked at the time, realized I should really get off the internet, and then looked for one more thing to do on the internet. One more pointless thing that I didn't even really want to do. So I'm on the internet for another hour or two with absolutely nothing to show for it.

My new system is pretty simple. From the time I get up in the morning until midnight, I can use the computer for whatever I want. After midnight, that's it. Computer goes off and I find something else to do, like read a book, watch a show, clean, or anything that doesn't involve the computer. This also goes for iPads, Blackberries, iPod Touches, Kindle Fires, and related devices, though I do watch Netflix after midnight. I guess that could hypothetically lead to me spending eighteen hours looking at Youtube videos, but that never seems to happen. Usually, I'm doing something all day and don't get on the computer until evening. I check my mail, catch up on Twitter and Google Reader, and then it's internet free time. Interestingly enough, I think it's cut down on my time wasters. I find myself avoiding things that are going to suck me in for three hours because oh, look, it's already 11:15 and I need to start thinking about shutting down the computer.

This probably won't always be practical. For instance, if there's something time sensitive that has to be done by 8 AM Monday morning, I'm not going to shut the computer down at midnight on Saturday and just relax for the rest of the weekend....though hopefully ,the "get off the internet" mindset will reduce wasted time. Overall, though, I think a regular forced internet time outs are a good thing. It reminds me that I can take a day off the internet and I'll survive, the internet will survive, and (most likely) nothing disastrous will have occurred.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Why I'm Skipping Black Friday

How did you spend your Thanksgiving?

I cooked a traditional Thanksgiving dinner. It was vegetarian except for the obligatory turkey (free range) for the carnivores in the house and almost completely from scratch (Crescent Rolls were requested and I had to buy a frozen pie shell after messing up the pie crust I was making). If you're interested, I put the links on my Diigo page under a Thanksgiving tag. After that, I cleaned up and watched The Muppet Christmas Carol.

On the other hand, a friend of mine helped feed over 1000 people a free Thanksgiving dinner and, rather than spending the night at home relaxing with her family, she had to go to work for one of the midnight Black Friday openings.

I've always tried to avoid Black Friday simply out of pragmatism. In a nutshell, the really good sales are usually reserved for the people who are willing to camp out in front of a store at 3 AM and fight for their place in line when the doors open. I don't want to go through that and most of the sales that still there at more reasonable hours aren't worth fighting through the crowds. In recent years, it's started to make me angry.

I had hoped that after the Wal-mart employee was trampled to death in 2008, people would wake up and realize that no, it doesn't matter how much you save, it's not worth it. Unfortunately, nothing changed, even though injuries and crazed crowds are hardly uncommon on Black Friday.

Instead, it's getting worse. Not only are the deals being hyped more, but the stores are opening earlier and earlier. Here's a list of Black Friday opening times and a lot of the stores are opening by midnight. Pretty much all of them are open by 6AM and, in case that wasn't bad enough, Toys R Us is even opening at 9PM.

The unbridled consumerism would be bad enough (watch a few of the videos of Black Friday shoppers fighting for sales and tell me you aren't disturbed), but it's becoming more and more clear that the employees aren't happy with having to destroy their Thanksgiving plans to facilitate more extreme Black Friday hours. The Target petition should be proof of that.

Here's the thing: If retailers make working extra hours on Black Friday voluntary (and hopefully give the employees who have to fight those crowds a little extra for doing so), then I'm okay with it. It's becoming more and more apparent, though, that at least some of the employees don't want to be there and are only showing up because their job is at stake.

I like my days off. I like spending Thanksgiving eating way to much food, doing a little Christmas decorating, watching television, eating more food, and waking up the next day at a reasonable time. I especially like not having to risk my safety on Black Friday because people really, really want that super laptop deal. I'm going to go out on a limb and say that most people probably feel the same way, even the people who are currently working in stores that opened two or more hours ago.

Because of that, I can't in good conscience support retailers on Black Friday. Or the Thursday formerly known as Thanksgiving and soon to be known as "Black Thursday." And until retailers stop promoting sales and events that are designed to produce a consumer feeding frenzy and start giving their employees a say in whether they give up their Thanksgiving, then I don't plan to spend a penny on Black Friday.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

On Price Raises and Stupid Names

I really, really like blogs and Twitter feeds. At one point, I had so many blogs on my Google Reader that I was sometimes getting a thousand new items a day. I called a lot of them and I'm gradually adding them back, making cuts as needed to keep things manageable. Today, I only had 76 new items.

Since I usually subscribe to multiple blogs in each of my areas of interest, I frequently see that same story posted multiple times. That makes sense and it's fine, although it sometimes gets annoying when an items that is news (like Verizon getting iPhones) merits a post in nearly every blog I read, especially over multiple posts on the same blog over several days and even moreso when an item is not only big news in a certain field, but gets mainstream news coverage as well.

Enter Netflix.

As most people know, Netflix announced in July that it would be separating DVD rent and streaming and would start charging $7.99 each. Previously, one-DVD-out with streaming was $9.99 (raised from $8.99 in November 2010) and streaming only was $7.99. What this meant for customers that wanted both streaming and DVDs was that they would go from paying $9.99 to $15.99. That meant a 60% price increase.

Predictably, a lot of customers cried foul. I use Netflix primarily for streaming, so I had only taken advantage of the DVD service a few times. I decided to switch to streaming only, which meant that I'll actually save a dollar due to the price changes, since it's forcing me to make an active choice and not pay an extra $12 per year for DVD insurance. ("Oh, I never get DVDs, but what if I really want to watch something that isn't streaming?") However, while a Netflix price increase made sense, anyone should have been able to predict that such a drastic increase would upset customers. I don't understand why they didn't raise it gradually over a longer period of time. Or offer a bundled rate with at least some discount for getting both.

Because this, customers were outraged, subscriptions were canceled, and blogs were flooded with commentary. Fortunately, a few amusing things came out of it, like First World Problem of the Day with Jason Alexander.

September finally rolled around, prices increased, and somehow the world didn't end. Instead of breathing a sigh of relief, Netflix's CEO decided to capitalize on the dearth of satisfied customers by making a blog post and a video that not only offered a non-apology apology, but also announced that the DVD rental side of Netflix would become Qwikster, which feature a separate website (including separate queues), separate credit card billing, but would keep the red envelope...which I'm pretty sure no one cared about at all.

Once again, there was plenty of snark regarding the decision, such as Landline's great parody video of Blockbuster's decision to split popcorn sales and DVD rentals and this comic by Brad Colbow.

Unfortunately, there's been a lot of serious coverage, too. Basically, a company that was pretty good made a really poor decision on pricing, then decided to make an even worse decision about splitting operations and using a really bad name. Oh, and did I mention that they don't even have the @Qwikster Twitter account? Turns out that their lack appreciation of creative spelling is shared by someone with a penchant for a pot smoking Elmo. (He's since changed his Twitter picture at least.)

To make a long story short, I'm just at a loss as to why so many people are taking this seriously. I understand being annoyed at the sudden and drastic price increase, but at this point, it's stopped being annoying or even mildly frustrating and started being downright hysterical. And really, given all the problems today, don't we all need to embrace humor wherever we find it? Even if it's just the schadenfreude of knowing that the leaders of a major company are capable of levels stupidity that most of us couldn't approach if we tried.

Friday, August 26, 2011

You Wouldn't Unlock a Car, Would You?

In recent months, I've seen several stories where adult entertainment companies have either filed suit, attempted to file suit, or just sent threatening letters to people for copyright infringement. Not surprisingly, more than a few people have quietly settled rather than fight the case. A recent settlement raised some disturbing issues, though.

According to this article, one of plaintiffs (John Doe 4) sued by Corbin Fisher agreed to a $10,401 settlement. He claims he was an "innocent infringer" and agreed to secure his wireless network to prevent anyone from using it to infringe. The breakdown of the settlement, according to Techdirt, is as follows:

* $200 for innocent infringement

* $200 for contributory infringement

* $1 to pay off the conspiracy charge

* $10,000 for the negligence of having an open router

I'm not sure what shocks me more: the idea that an open router is negligent or that it's $10,000 worth of negligence. It seems out of proportion with the damages. Corbin Fisher's attorney attempts to rationalize the negligence here. His argument is simple: If you leave your Wifi open and someone uses it for copyright infringement, then you should bear the responsibility for any injury done by a copyright infringer because you (not the copyright holder) should bear the burden of damages because you were in a much better position to prevent the damages from occurring (i.e. prevent someone from using your Wifi by locking it). The argument is persuasive until you spend even one second thinking about it, then it's utterly ridiculous.

I agree that leaving your Wifi open exposes you to certain risks and I personally keep my Wifi locked both for security reasons and because I don't want to risk an FBI raid because someone uses my network to download child pornography.

I also strongly agree with the theory that the person who was in the position to prevent the injury to another person should be required to take the appropriate steps and, if he doesn't, he, not the innocent injured party, should bear the cost of the injury. In his example, if you leave your keys in your car and if someone steals your car and then destroys a fence, you, rather than the owner of the fence, should bear the cost of replacing the fence because you were in a better position to prevent the destruction of the fence.

The problem with Mr. Randazza's opinion is that it assumes that an unlocked wireless network is inherently bad and people who choose not to lock their network are negligent in the same way that a person who leaves her keys in her car is negligent. He mentions that he chooses not to use a loaded gun analogy because it would be "overly melodramatic and hysterical. This isn't the first time that someone has tried to draw a parallel between piracy and cars. The MPAA's attempt to draw parallels between piracy and car theft struck a lot of people as ridiculous and spawned a lot of parodies, my two personal favorites being the IT Crowd and Futurama.

Furthermore, while I have yet to see anyone arguing that more people should leave the keys in their cars, the EFF has made a pretty solid argument for an Open Wireless Movement, pointing out that there's a legitimate need for widespread access to Wifi and that the potential benefits to the average user (free Wifi anywhere, in an ideal world) would more than offset the potential problems (slower connection and less security)...especially when steps could be taken to minimize those problems.

It's important to remember that there's no case law saying that an open Wifi is negligent and that this is just a settlement by someone who was probably in a fairly weak bargaining position and just wanted to make everything go away without being exposed for allegedly downloading gay pornography. It's entirely possible (and hopefully probable) that if this did to go trial, the idea of open Wifi as negligence would be laughed out of court...though courts seem to have less of a sense of humor than I would hope when the magic words of "intellectual property" come up.

That said, the fact that someone is even trying to make the argument of open Wifi as negligence is somewhat disturbing, since recent months have shown that a lot of truly ridiculous laws are passed when it comes to the internet, copyright infringement, and intellectual property. I understand that the entertainment industry has to make money in order to continue to create movies, music, games, etc and I also realize that piracy is a very real issue, but I don't like the implication that it's my responsibility to prevent third parties from committing copyright infringement.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Netflix Subscription Changes

I had already heard that Netflix was going to drop add a DVD-only plan and charge $7.99 a month. Today, though, I found out that Netflix is doing some major restructuring of their subscription plans. Starting September 1, the plan that I currently use (1 DVD out with streaming for $9.99 a month) will end. I can choose between a $7.99 DVD-only plan, a $7.99 streaming only plan, or I can pay $15.98 for my current plan.

Not surprisingly, Netflix has some annoyed customers. The blog entry announcing this change has 5000 comments, mostly from people complaining about what amounts to a 60% price hike, despite the fact that Netflix is presenting it as "offering [their] lowest prices ever." (As a side note, while a lot of people may indeed end up paying less for Netflix now, saying that it's a price drop is just as much of a logic fail as when AT&T and Verizon got rid of unlimited internet packages and offered less data for a lower price. The fact that you're offering a more bare bones option that means that some customers will save money by paying less money for less product doesn't mean that you've actually dropped prices.)

Personally, I don't care. I joined Netflix about five years ago with the 3 DVD out plan and barely used it until streaming came to the Xbox 360. Now I use it pretty much daily and I have a streaming device on every television I own. I still rarely get DVDs. I've had The Godfather since last June and I still haven't watched it. I should have dropped down to streaming when the option came out, but I've essentially been paying $2 a month for a DVD option. I would have probably continued to do this, but I'm not going to pay $8 a month for that option. If I subscribed to a separate DVD plan, I would have to really get some use out of it and I'm obviously not that big on renting DVDs from Netflix. If Netflix has a significant number of customers like me, then this seems like a really stupid decision because they're basically collecting $2 from me because I want the option of DVD rental, but I'm too lazy to actually rent them.

Of course, I'm probably not a typical Netflix customer and the people complaining the loudest about this change and threatening to quit also might not represent the majority of customers. It's entirely possible that a lot of customers don't use streaming and are annoyed that there's a cheap streaming only alternative, but no DVD only plan.

I seldom rent DVDs, so I'll probably try Redbox or Blockbuster (are they going to be around?) or even outright buy the DVD. The only difference is that I'll be paying less per month. That said, it would have been nice if Netflix offered a bundled plan ($13.98, for instance) or grandfathered older subscribers in. Of course, if they plan to use the money they're making to get a better selection of streaming titles, I'll be a happy camper, price hike or no.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Creepiness, Thy Name Is Facebook

I've made a lot of jokes about Facebook and Twitter stalking. They're not that good. Usually I just say that instead of getting to know someone, I'll just stalk their social media accounts. In my defense, I say it directly to the person and I haven't got an uncomfortable laugh or a restraining order yet, so I'm going to assume that it's perfectly okay to get to know someone by clicking through every picture they've posted, seeing which of their friends I know, and looking at their interests. I'm also going to assume that I'm fine even if it isn't okay, because I generally don't have the attention span to do all of those things...or even half.

My point being, people give up a lot of privacy on Facebook and they do most of it voluntarily or even eagerly. And I'm not even saying it's a bad thing. I like being able to passively keep track of what's going on with various people in my life and status updates and photos let me do that. Plus, with a lot of families living so far apart, being able to post videos and photos of major events is a good thing.

That said, I've noticed that Facebook has a knack for somehow making even benign things creepy. Maybe it's because I'm on the defensive due to Facebook rolling out new features that are invasive and making the least private option the default setting. Maybe it's because I'm aware of the fact that Facebook is a large company whose primary goal is making money and who realized early on that the key to making money was encouraging people to share everything with little or not regard to the consequences. (And maybe that makes me uncomfortable because I'm pretty the Girls Gone Wild videos operate on the same principle.)

Or maybe it's because Facebook presents information in a creepy and awkward way. For instance, tonight, I made a post about being excited that my favorite teahouse was doing a tasting event for my favorite tea (Darjeeling, in case anyone is making their Christmas list early) and the opera is performing an Indian folktalke, The Flowering Tree, the week after. I then discovered that Facebook shows friends' interests that are related to your updates, because showed in the little space where ads and things my friends like show up that "X likes opera."

Is this private information? No, because people had to voluntarily click like. It's even topical. But it's awkward. In fact, it sounds like a conversation with one of those socially awkward people that never seems to be able to carry their part of the conversation. You know, where you tell someone your great and clever story about the charming, funny person you met on your trip to Paris and the person replies "I like French fries."

I guess it's good to find out more about my friends and I suppose this is Facebook's way of sneaking in directed ads using your friends helping you connect more with your friends, but overall, it just helps to reinforce that feeling that Facebook is the creepy stalker who tries to read over your shoulder on the computer and digs through your garbage in hopes of gaining more insight into what makes you tick by studying your discarded catalogs and fast food receipts. And frankly, it's probably the fear that someone can gain insight into me based on my Williams Sonoma catalogs and receipts for frozen lemonades that makes me uncomfortable with this.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

A few days ago, I came across a short story called Nanolaw with My Daughter. The premise was interesting: In a world where people were literally being nickeled and dimed with lawsuits, a father sat down and taught his daughter how to answer her own lawsuits. In a day, the daughter received over fifty suits, only a few over a dollar, and several dealing with copyright. It should have been ridiculous (you hum a song walking down the street, the copyright hold catches it on video and demands a few cents because of your infringement), but a couple of stories this week made it seem less so. First, there was a proposed bill that would make it a crime to embed a copyrighted Youtube video without permission. Second, Tennessee passed a bill that makes it a crime to share your entertainment subscription login information. Tennessee's governor supported this by "citing the large record industry presence in Nashville." The article mentioned that the bill was aimed at hackers and thieves who resell passwords, but made sure to mention a couples cases where college students share Netflix login info with everyone they know. Techdirt posted an interesting commentary (RIAA Wants To Put People In Jail For Sharing Their Music Subscription Login With Friends).

This bothers me for a couple of reasons. First, based on my understanding of how Netflix and other providers license content, the recording or movie industry isn't losing money if subscriptions are shared. Netflix pays a yearly fee for licenses (for instance, $30 million for Starz content). Period. Starz doesn't get paid more if Netflix has more accounts or less if they have fewer. In other words, Starz gets $30 million a year, even if everyone with a Netflix account shares their password with everyone they know. I assume that other companies license content in a similar way. So I'm a little unclear as to how the RIAA is claiming that sharing subscription info is resulting in lost revenue. At most, Netflix and Rhapsody are losing subscription revenue.

Second, why is this being criminalized? Looking over Rhapsody's terms of use, only the user can access the service. Netflix limits usage to members of the immediate household. Obviously, sharing login information violates the terms of use and could result in an account being terminated, in addition to possible civil liability. Furthermore, entertainment services already have protections in place to prevent massive password sharing. Rhapsody will only stream to one device at a time and Rhapsody to Go limits the user to three devices. Netflix only allows the user to have six authorized devices as well as the number of devices that can stream simultaneously (between one and four devices, depending on the plan). That alone would probably dissuade most users from sharing login information. It's all well and good to let ten of your best buddies watch their favorite shows and listen to their favorite songs for free with your subscriptions when it doesn't affect you, but when it means that you might not be able to use the service you're paying for, it's a lot less tempting.

Personally, I'm getting tired of hearing about how the recording industry's profits are down and how movie piracy hurts corn farmers. Like most people, I consume a lot of media and I'm a huge fan of streaming media. I subscribe to Netflix, Hulu Plus, and Rhapsody To Go and I come out ahead for doing it. In fact, since I subscribed to Rhapsody to Go at the beginning of this year, I haven't bought any music. I'm still buying DVDs, but I'm definitely spending less as Netflix increases their catalog. I still buy games and books, although I'm using the library more for books and I would happily pay a reasonable monthly subscription if I found a good streaming game service or if I could download all the ebook I wanted.

In short, I understand and accept that the entertainment industry has to make money to continue producing works. I also understand that consumers have to pay for content. However, just because the entertainment industry likes the model where the only way hear a song is to either listen to the radio for hours or pay $15 or more to buy the entire CD for one song doesn't mean that they can turn back time and recreate that model. Like it or not, today's consumers are accustomed to being able to either buy songs a la carte or pay a flat fee for all you can eat. If the RIAA's profits are decreasing because of this (and I'm skeptical as to whether they are), then maybe they should be grateful that they managed to get away with overcharging consumers for so many years and try to figure out how to make a fair amount with the current model. Personally, if I had to go back to the days of buying an entire album to get one song (assuming, of course, I could even find the album in a store), I would probably just stop buying music completely.