March 28, 2007


Filed under: Portland Traffic — Tom @ 5:28 pm

Here’s something that definitely never happened in Chicago. My trip to work today was blocked by a landslide.

Landslide on Highway 26

Up until now, I’m pretty sure my only exposure to landslides was in Speed Racer Episode 50, The Trick Race. And Speed just jumped over them with the auto jacks.


March 27, 2007

Pumping Your Own Gas

Filed under: Motorcycling, Portland — Tom @ 8:43 pm

If there is one thing that completely drives me crazy about Portland, it’s Oregon’s ban on pumping one’s own gas. For those of you who haven’t been here, it’s one of two states in the Union that prohibit motorists from fueling their own cars. (The other is New Jersey.)

This gas thing is a disaster, both here and in NJ. Gas station owners don’t want to have to provide full service. These gas attendents exist solely by government edict. So the stations only have one or two guys working at a time. You’ll see big gas stations with five or more islands, most of which are blocked off with orange cones since they’ve only got one pump jockey. So you get in line behind the other cars and gaze longingly at all the open (but verboten!) gas pumps. When I lived in Virginia and had to make trips to New Jersey, the lines on the New Jersey Turnpike went on forever.

What’s the point of all this? The idea was that back when these laws were passed, filling your tank was a dangerous exercise that only trained professionals could handle successfully. I mean, look at the havoc that’s occurred in the other 48 states where untrained auto owners pump about 100 billion gallons every year. I myself lost a close, personal (well, fictional) friend to a bizarre squeegee accident in ’71.

Today? Who knows. Certainly there’s the argument that removing the ban would throw thousands of gas pump attendants out of work. (Cars, buggy whips, blah blah.) Some also seem to think that motorists in their state are just too stupid. From a USA Today article last year:

Bill Dressler, executive director of the New Jersey Gasoline Retailers Association and Allied Trades, says there are safety concerns. While attendants are trained, many motorists would be novices. “It could be put in the wrong container,” says Dressler, whose group represents about 2,200 of the state’s 3,800 gas stations. There could be “somebody getting out and smoking and they didn’t turn the engine off.”

Um, is Bill really concerned that people are going to put gas into the wrong hole? Or is he talking about somebody trying to fill up a milk carton or something? I’m not sure. The part that gets me really riled up, though, is the talk of “trained” attendants.

In New Jersey, the attendant would routinely ask if I wanted him to “top it off” — which you probably know you aren’t supposed to do. Even after I said no, there were a couple times when my refueling professional would fill the tank until the gas ran out onto the ground. I’ve never seen anyone top off their tank, anywhere, except for the highly trained New Jersey guys.

Environmentally conscious Oregon is no better. In June, 2001, Oregon granted motorcyclists the right to pump their own gas — but the pump still had to be operated by the gas attendant, handed off to the motorcyclist, and handed back to the attendant. Every time I ride up to a gas pump, while I’m taking off my gear, the pump attendant helpfully comes over and drains the all the fuel from gas hose onto the ground!. I rarely get a chance to stop them. Again, just like topping it off in New Jersey, I’ve never come across anyone who does this except for the guys that Oregon requires to handle the pumps. Every motorcyclist I know is more than capable of filling the tank without spilling gas on it.

If the biggest environmental hazard coming out of pumping gas is the ban on self service, maybe it’s time to drop it. But it’s a surpisingly volatile topic — I’m constantly surprised at how locals who have lived here their whole lives hate the idea of self-service gas stations.

And, of course, there’s always the logic of out-of-touch New Jersey politicians. From the USA Today link:

Assemblyman Francis Bodine…. says, “If I’m in a tux going to a black tie (event), I don’t want to stop and handle a gas pump.”

Yeah, Francis. I hate when that happens. My limo driver always ends up smelling like gasoline.

March 20, 2007

Apple TV Now Shipping — No, Really

Filed under: Apple, Media, Technology — Tom @ 8:54 am

After my ridiculous mistake where I thought my Apple TV had shipped last week, I got my e-mail from Apple today letting me know that it was on its way.

(For those of you who want the short version, Apple had broken my order into two shipments. I thought it was the Apple TV and posted that it was on its way. Minor confusion ensued at a few discussion boards.)

I’m really looking forward to checking this thing out. As I posted before, I think I seriously underestimated the potential impact of the Apple TV. I’m looking forward to watching my enormous backlog of video podcasts on my television and seeing what else Apple can do with this platform.

March 18, 2007

Apple TV Shipping – Follow-Up

Filed under: Apple, Media, Technology — Tom @ 11:17 am

Shipments are happening and my Apple TV is already in Portland, according to FedEx. Woo! It should be here tomorrow.

FedEx Apple TV Tracking

UPDATE: Based on a number of skeptical posts over at Investor Village, I went back to my order on the Apple website. Apparently, they went ahead and shipped some accessories — the Apple TV is still showing Tuesday. Bummer. I was so excited about the Apple TV that I forgot I’d even ordered anything else.

Thanks to the Investor Village folks for getting me to double-check this. I apologize for the confusion. Let the virtual comeuppance begin.

UPDATE: Damn. Now I’m officially classified as a rumor-monger — and an unreliable one at that. CouchApple.TV picked up this article. As of now, it hasn’t picked up my correction.

FINAL UPDATE: As expected, today FedEx delivered… my component video cables. That’ll teach me to look twice before I blog about something.

March 17, 2007

More iPhone Talk

Filed under: Apple, iPhone, Technology — Tom @ 11:15 am

Seth Godin’s new blog for his upcoming book talks about iPhone pricing. His point is that Apple had to get through the resistance to paying much, if anything, for a great mobile phone.

Obviously, I’m a big fan of the iPhone. I think Seth’s right and that if Apple really has created the best mobile in the world, the high pricing (and let’s face it, nothing’s final until these things hit the stores) isn’t going to be a major issue.

I think I’m going to buy The Dip. (This is a sponsored link — you can also find links directly from Seth.)

March 16, 2007

Apple TV Shipping

Filed under: Apple, Media, Technology — Tom @ 12:45 am

As in my Apple TV is shipping!

I’d been wavering on this. Then g-whiz posted that it had started to ship. And for some reason I headed over to Apple’s site and put in my order. By 9:00 p.m. Apple had sent me an e-mail that my Apple TV was on the way.

Why this sudden, dare we say impetuous, purchase?

Apple TV

Here’s the deal. When Steve announced the “iTV” last fall, I was really underwhelmed. It fell way short of my expectations. There’s no input? It doesn’t do DVR? Come on, Apple, I thought, make this something I need! You don’t even need to start from scratch — go buy TiVo, port their software to OS X and create the ultimate media center. And include their subscription service as part of .Mac, so it will be more than an overpriced e-mail/file-sharing service. (Yeah, iWeb is cool, but it creates ridiculous URLs and I’d prefer to host a website under my own domain.)

So while I thought the Apple TV would be neat, I didn’t see why I’d want one. Over the intervening months, however, my thinking started to change.

First I found a bunch of new video podcasts to get hooked on. I was already way behind on GeekBrief.TV and Strong Bad Email, and now this! Four Eyed Monsters and TEDTalks and Amanda Congdon! Then Videomaker Presents and Mastering Videography. And on. And on.

There’s some great content out there. And pretty soon, I was finding that I’d rather watch podcasts than anything offered on cable. Hmmm. Sure would be great if I could just watch them on the TV.

Then I started to rethink cable. It was already terrible. In fact, I think my cable bill is higher because it’s terrible. The movie channels rehash the same stuff over and over so much that we subscribed to absolutely everything to try and get more movie options. But we’ve really ended up just TiVoing a handful of shows each. And stuff I really wanted, like Race To Dakar, didn’t even make it to cable but is now sold as a download.

Wow. Cable sucks. And my $1,200+ a year cable subscription would buy a lot of iTunes season passes. (Heroes? Check. The Office? Check.)

I’m not ditching my cable this week. Or even this year, probably. But Apple may be onto something and I very likely underestimated the appeal of the Apple TV. I wanted it to fit into what I thought watching TV should be. But I just didn’t get it.

There’s a whole new world of media out there that’s got nothing to do with that hunk of coax coming out of the wall. I’ve been a believer in this stuff for a long time and I still didn’t get the Apple TV.

So if you aren’t exploring what’s out there, do yourself a favor. Fire up iTunes and go search through the video podcasts. Or go to PodShow and check out some channels there. Go visit iFilm. Download an episode of Race to Dakar. Check out the Internet archive. You can even go keep an eye on the guys in Washington. (But C-SPAN, I’m not installing that damn Real player. Get some H.264 versions up and dump Windows Media and Real.) And there’s always YouTube. Geez, just install the Democracy Player and get it all.

I promise you’ll find something that blows you away. And maybe a year from now the only place that coaxial cable goes is to your modem.

Update: Sorry to the Windows users out there. I didn’t realize that the apple symbol isn’t a valid unicode character. I’ve replaced all my “[apple symbol]tv” references with the more traditional “Apple TV” wording.

March 15, 2007

We Take Our Time Here in Portland

Filed under: Portland Traffic — Tom @ 12:58 pm

I’m getting used to the complete lack of urgency in Portland traffic. And I thought I’d seen it all. Yet last week I came across something here while driving to work that I’ve never seen anywhere.

I was driving along highway 26, a divided highway that serves as a major artery to Portland’s western suburbs and then continues on to the coast. I came across a big traffic jam as the highway shrank from three to two westbound lanes. Eventually, I was able to see a car stopped in the left-hand lane, forcing all traffic to merge together in the right lane to get around the vehicle.

This isn’t so unusual, I thought. Traffic accidents and vehicle breakdowns happen all the time, everywhere. I patiently waited as traffic inched by the car. As I came alongside the “disabled” vehicle, though, the driver did something (I really think he put something down), put his car in gear and drove off.

To all outward appearances, the driver and passenger were just stopped in the passing lane of a major highway reading their map or something, while traffic backed up for miles behind them. I’ve considered the possibility that they did actually have a breakdown and eventually managed to start the car, but it sure looked like the guy just put it in gear and took off.

March 11, 2007

Best Buy — Is Their Time Over?

Filed under: Business — Tom @ 11:56 am

Is there any point to stores like Best Buy anymore?

I think most people have a love/hate relationship with the big-box chains. And those that don’t tend to have a hate/hate relationship. Recently, CompUSA announced that they’d be shuttering half their stores. Now we find out from Boing Boing and elsewhere that Best Buy has admitted to keeping a fake version of its website running on store computers — the fake site displays higher prices than the real site and can be used to refute customers who claim to have seen a better price online.

Personally, I’ve lost patience with these places. The “helpful” sales people offer assistance and then start reading the product’s package to try and answer my questions. Hint to CompUSA / Best Buy / Circuit City / wherever — it’s incredibly irritating when some salesdrone starts doing exactly what I was already doing, only slower. Train your people to knock it off. If they don’t have an answer, then just have them say they don’t know.

I already avoid CompUSA as much as possible. My most recent visit had some sales guy arguing with me over the existence of a Firewire 800 hub. And I can’t stand their use of supplier operatives to demo printers — the HP rep doesn’t actually tell you that they work for HP as they extoll the virtues of their printers and ignore other brands. Be sure to ask if the person helping you works for the printer company. (Of course, this is a double-edged sword. These people are much better informed about the products they represent. Just don’t think that you’re getting impartial advice. In fact, don’t assume you’re getting impartial advice from anyone in any of these places.)

This news about Best Buy just reinforces how I already felt about them. I already hated how I got offered an extended warranty on just about everything. Their pricing isn’t particularly good. And, as mentioned, the employees can’t do much more than point to where stuff might be located.

How do traditional retailers like these compete? Why wouldn’t I go to Amazon first and take advantage of their thousands of crowdsourced reviews? Sure, you have to be on your toes and look out for astroturfing, but you can usually find reviews that can be relied upon. Why wouldn’t I buy everything online?

CompUSA has made an effort to turn their retail stores into an online strength, allowing me to order online and pick up at a local store recently. But how do they fix the retail stores themselves?

I like retail stores. I like to see products side by side and examine them before I buy. There are reasons why I wouldn’t buy everything online — Best Buy and their ilk just need to give me some.

How about these:

  1. Knowledgeable salespeople. Train your staff so they can actually help me. Pay them more so they stay longer and gain experience.
  2. Stop offering extended warranties. Everyone in the world decries these things as a complete rip-off. Why would you associate your brand with these things at all? Let alone constantly? (It should go without saying that phony websites to scam consumers should not be part of the retail strategy.)
  3. Use some of that massive floor space to set up some of your products. Show people how a wireless home network is configured. I’ve seen a little of this, but not much. How about some educational clinics to educate people?
  4. Is there any hope that technology will speed up the checkout process? I doubt that a system of roving checkout people like Apple’s EasyPay would work in an environment this large, but can’t there be some way to pre-scan my stuff? I think the massive line at the centralized bank of registers needs some reconsideration.

Given the recent article praising Apple as America’s top retailer (thanks, TUAW!) with over four times the sales per square foot of Best Buy, the big-box stores need a major overhaul. Obviously, Best Buy and Apple are wildly different creatures, with Apple focusing its small retail stores on a narrow selection of products. But unless stores like Best Buy give me a reason to visit them — a good product selection coupled with smart, savvy staff who can inform and enlighten about a given product — then I think I’ll be getting my advice from the millions of helpful folks on the Internet. And checkout will certainly take a lot less time.

Hey, I may even start visiting local specialty stores that focus on what I want to buy. Wouldn’t that be a novel concept?

March 10, 2007

Just Watching TV

Filed under: Movies — Tom @ 4:58 pm

Free Enterprise is on cable right now. I love this movie. I own it on DVD, but can’t help watch it whenever I come across it like this. Not everyone gets it — you really need to be a huge nerd. The main characters Mark (played by Eric McCormack of Will & Grace fame) and Robert (Rafer Weigel) spend a lot of time talking about comic books and science fiction movies.

And you can’t be a fan of just the new stuff, as made clear when Robert finds himself arguing about movies with a little kid at Toys R Us:

You know what the problem is with you kids today? You guys think that all science fiction started in 1977 with Star Wars. Man, what about movies like Forbidden Planet? The Day the Earth Stood Still? Solaris? What about Logan’s Run?

This movie is pure nerd genius. I just thought everyone should know.

March 1, 2007

DRM-Free Motorcycling Shows Released

Filed under: Apple, DRM, Media, Motorcycling, Movies — Tom @ 4:33 pm

The Unofficial Apple Weblog reported on the documentary “In Search of the Valley”, which has just been released using the digital rights management-free Streamburst store. I thought this was kinda interesting but TUAW threw in an aside that caught my attention — Streamburst has also been used to build the storefront and sell DRM-free digital downloads of the television series Long Way Round and Race to Dakar!

Race to Dakar

I’ve already purchased the first two episodes of “Race to Dakar” and am really happy — there are three different formats to choose from and you can download all three if you want. I can move them around to any computer in my house and watch them using a variety of players, or burn a DVD and use it wherever I want. I love that I don’t have to deal with the restrictions imposed by DRM. I hope people start buying these because DRM-free distribution deserves to come out on top.

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