Thursday, November 30, 2006

Dust-catching DVDs

Best Buy, Circuit City, Target, Wal-Mart -- all of them prominently feature DVDs in their consumer electronics fliers. So now the time has come to tie together our threads on collecting and shopping together.

How many DVDs do you really need to own? Personal question, true, but one not everyone asks. Some of my friends want to own every movie they see. Even after several years, they're still in the accumulation phase of collecting. Sure, they've got hundreds of movies, but how many get viewed more than once or twice?

These are collections that are stuck in the accumulation phase, with a list of titles that's wide but shallow. Do you really need to own Steve Martin's "Pink Panther" or Jim Carrey's "Fun with Dick and Jane?" Sure, they're both on sale now at Target but, really, how many times to you expect to revisit these gems?

While there are some DVDs I consider important to own, it’s a fairly small list. For a title to enter my collection, it has to be something I know I'll want to view in whole or in parts at least ten times or more. It should also be something that's not readily available. For everything else, there's Netflix.

And that's where collecting and gift buying come together. Unless you know your intended gift recipient is really burning for a copy of "Geisha," (another title on sale in said Target flier), a gift subscription to Netflix might be a better choice. As we move more towards Web 2.0 (more on that another post), the tradeoff between owning something of marginal interest and being able to access it when needed will continue to grow in importance when considering a purchase.

I'm glad I own the Kino release of "Metropolis." I've revisit it with some frequency, and I continue to find new insights with each viewing. "Pirates of the Caribbean?"

I can wait three days for the Netflix envelope to arrive.
- Ralph

Sunday, November 26, 2006

The informed shopper and Black Friday

So how did you do the day after Thanksgiving? Many people were there when the doors opened at 5:00 AM, and many departed with some kind of consumer electronics. In fact, the CE category was the big winner this year.

Reading anecdotal stories from various newspapers across the country, it seems few people thought out their purchases (beyond price). The most common purchases seemed to be flat-panel TVs, DVD players, MP3 players and game consoles -- all basically stand-alone items.

In the Bloomberg story I've linked to above, one shopper reports that "[she] bought a 42- inch Panasonic plasma TV for $1,000 at a Best Buy Co. store the day after Thanksgiving. The set was marked down from $1,700 and was "my gift to me."

I wonder if any research went into that purchase. If not, there may be some unpleasant surprises in store. Expect to mount it on a wall? The wall mount is a separate purchase -- expect to spend around $100 or so. Gonna just put it on your current A/V stand? Hope it isn't particle board -- that TV weighs about 69 lbs.

And if you're going to mount it on the wall, its best to get someone who knows what they're doing. If the mount isn't anchored to studs that set's going to take a spectacular nose-dive to the floor.

How about the rest of her gear? GIGO (Garbage In, Garbage Out) applies to video as well. If she's only getting standard analog broadcasts (or the equivelant from cable or satellite), then its gonna have the same poor resolution -- only it will be easier to see how bad it really is. While the set does have a built-in tuner for over the air digital broadcasts, without the proper reciever and connections, her cable service or satellite TV digital signal will be downcoverted -- and look like her plain old analog broadcasts.

It could be that she was prepared for all that, and everything's fine. But my rule of thumb is this: if it costs more than $20.00, its too expensive to qualify as an impulse purchase.

- Ralph

Friday, November 24, 2006

Ebay and the erosion of passion

Ken brings up a valid point about collecting and the impact of Ebay. In any collection, the value of an object is determined by three factors; desirability, availability and condition. Items formerly difficult to find are now only a click away on Ebay – which subsequently lowers their value.

And another aspect of collecting disappears -– the thrill of the hunt. It’s not something to be underestimated. While hoarding is a compulsion, collecting is a passion. The search is sometimes the most rewarding part –- and the experience can lead to a greater knowledge and appreciation of the field.

When everything becomes instantly available, objects not only loses some monetary value, but some of emotional value as well. Most collectors have stories about prized objects in their collection; how it took six years to finish the matched set, or how they stumbled across this great find in a flea market. The difficulty (or serendipity) of its acquisition can give the object added emotional value to the collector.

With enough money, you could probably acquire an instant collection of just about anything through Ebay. But would you care?

- Ralph

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Collecting in the electronic age

Nice post on the difference between collecting and hoarding, Ralph.

One thing about collecting that struck me recently is how much the on-line auction has changed collecting. As a teenager, I collected beer cans. This involved a lot of leg work -- scouring flea markets, searching back roads, buying cans from different regions when on vacation, etc.

30 years later, when I decided to unload the cans on eBay, the market was swamped. Cans that had been hard to find were now easily available -- all you need is a PayPal account, and money was the only limiting factor. And, as a corollary, cans that had once had some value were selling for pennies on the dollar. The grunt work was gone.

Sure, there are still gems to be found in collecting the old-fashioned way, and there'll always be people doing that. But collecting can be almost a whim now. Decide that you want a collection of vintage movie posters and you'll probably start your search on-line. In fact you may never have to go any further.

A labor of love becomes a business transaction. Instant communication and an interconnected universal marketplace has brought us much, but something else has been lost.


The Concept of Collecting

I'd like to dig a little deeper into the concept of "collecting," especially as it's sometimes indistinguishable from hoarding. IMHO, true collections go through three stages: accumulation, consolidation, and definition.

1) Accumulation
-- This is when a collection is born. The collector actively seeks out more items to fill the collection. Whether the collector can articulate it or not, the goal is simply to get more. Let's take a stamp collection, for example. This would be the stage where any and all stamps are welcome -- new, old, foreign, domestic.

2) Consolidation
-- At some point, the collection begins to take shape. The collector, who now has a greater knowledge of his or her field of interest, finds some aspects of the collection more interesting than others. At the same time he realizes that it's impossible to collect every object in the field. The collector becomes more discerning with his purchases, and may even begin discarding peripheral pieces. Our stamp collector finds he likes US commemoratives, and sells or trades his foreign stamps to further his acquisition of American stamps.

3) Definition
-- As consolidation continues, the collector further narrows the theme of his collection. This kind of focused collection can usually be summed up in single, detailed sentence. Our philatelist might define his collection as US commemoratives issued between 1960 and 1977, mint condition only." The goal has changed from accumulating one of everything to obtaining the best possible examples of the collection's focus. While the collector may keep some items that are outside of the core collection -- a rare foreign stamp, or his first plate block -- most fall within the narrow confines of the collection.

Hoarding may seem indistinguishable from accumulation as I've defined it. Both involve gathering more and more things. Hoarding is usually a physical manifestation of unresolved emotional issues; building a nest of objects where one can feel safe. The accumulation phase of collecting is similar -- one object gives me pleasure, so ten should give me ten times as much. And most people don't move on from phase one, like the lady at the office who collects pigs -- ceramic, stuffed, large, small, realistic, whimsical or anything -- and has for years. That's the kind of collecting that can quickly turn to hoarding.

Notice, though, that as a collection moves through its life cycle it may actually shrink in size. The definition phase is a good time to dump items of marginal quality, duplicates and so on. And collectors in the definition phase may go months or even years without adding a new item (as opposed to those in the acquisition phase that can be adding stuff daily).

Healthy collecting can be a good thing. The accumulation of stuff just to have more – whether old newspapers or big-ticket electronics -- is not. And it could land you a place later on in the fourth circle of hell.

- Ralph

Monday, November 20, 2006

PlayStation 3 and the Fourth Circle of Hell

Ken’s recent rant about consumerism and the antics at the PlayStation 3 lines got me thinking about Dante’s “Inferno.” In Canto VII, the poet runs across the hoarders and the wasters in the fourth circle of hell. They’re locking in perpetual combat, never realizing that they are two sides of the same coin. Dante’s guide Virgil remarks:

"Now canst thou, Son, behold the transient farce
Of goods that are committed unto Fortune,
For which the human race each other buffet;

For all the gold that is beneath the moon,
Or ever has been, of these weary souls
Could never make a single one repose."

So we have people waiting in line for two days to purchase a PlayStation 3 – in order to immediately put it on Ebay. Is it really essential to get the very first PlayStation 3? How much above retail price is it worth?

I admit I never really understood the importance of being the very first one to get the hot new gadget. In my experience, it takes a generation or two to work all the bugs out – and by that time the item is much improved, and far more reasonably priced.

Consider the iPod. The first ones held 5GB and cost $400. That’s less than the $250 8GB iPod nano holds now. Anyone who stood in line for one of those first generation iPods still have them? How about the original “Tickle Me Elmo” or even the first xBox?

In another post I’ll tackle the thorny concept of collecting vs. hoarding, but this holiday season as the ad campaigns ramp up to full strength, I’ll just ask that you take a moment to ponder your “must-have” item from last year. Do you even remember what it was? Do you still have it? Is it still absolutely essential to your health and happiness?

It’s easy – especially with consumer electronics – to get caught up in the acquisition of things. And if something makes us fleetingly happy, well surely an even bigger one will make us happier still. Dante’s hoaders tried to hold onto everything that came their way in life, accumulating as much as possible. The wasters appeared to be the opposite, frittering away all they had for momentary diversions.

But consider this: as we gather more and more cool gadgets around us, maxing out our credit cards in the process, are we hoarders, or wasters, or both? And, while we may subscribe to the philosophy that “Whoever dies with the most toys wins,” we may want to ask what exactly the prize is. Can a PlayStation 3, a Nintendo Wii or even a Zune buy our weary souls repose?

- Ralph

Friday, November 17, 2006

DVD PS3 Q-list

Suggestions for DVDs to watch while waiting in the PlayStation 3 que.

There's several ways to go here. One thought would be to bring movies with the longest running-times to help pass the time. Just sticking to theatrical releases, there's "Napoleon" (235 min) if you want to do serious cinema. Or try "1900" (333 min.) if you want to add color and sound. Of course there's the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, the "Star Wars" movies and so on which can all help pass the time.

Another thought (and a little more in line with the gamer's demographic) would be use that time for a season retrospective of your favorite TV series. How about the complete "Babylon 5"? Or one of the Star Trek series, or something similar. An interesting viewing experiment might be to do a complete run of "24" -- playing each program in its corresponding hour. See if your powers of reason match Jack Bauer's after staying awake for 20+ hours.

Or you could have a filmfest of videogame-based movies to get you in the mood for your new purchase (and maybe arouse the fighting spirit necessary to make it through the frenzied mob of fellow shoppers).

"Resident Evil,"
perhaps, or "Mortal Kombat." "Lara Croft, Tomb Raider," or maybe "The Last Starfighter" if you're really old skool. You could try "Super Mario Bros." or "Street Fighter" if you wanted to make it a real stink-fest (with appropriate MST3K-style commentary).

And let's not forget the top-selling DVD of all time based on a video game -- Pokemon.

- Ralph

Camping out?

Ah, the lifestyle of the early adopter! On my way to the pool on Thursday morning I saw them -- the early adopters/gamers/geeks camped out in front of the local big box store waiting for the new PlayStation 3.

I won't try to figure them out. After all, they probably think I'm stupid for getting up at 5 AM to swim a couple of miles -- who am I to criticize their choice of recreational activities?

I will, however, try to make a few suggestions for making their stay in the great outdoors a little easier.

First off, you've got to have power. May I suggest this nifty device from Xantrex? The XPower 1500 will supply your encampment with over 1300 watts of power -- enough to power a refrigerator, LCD screen, laptop, and (soon to be obsolete) game console.

As far as shelter goes, it's shocking to see what passes for a tent these days. Ditch that WalMart tent and step up to The North Face 2 Meter Expedition Dome. Sure, it may look like overkill, but if you're going to lay down six bills for a game console, shouldn't you make sure you can rest in comfort while you wait, protected from wind and rain? And since it holds 8, there's plenty of room for your friends -- party time!

Speaking of lying in comfort, you'll want to stay warm at night. There's no substitute for a good down bag -- light and warm to the max -- perfect for your fast-moving style.

Now that you're snug and warm, you'll need entertainment.

Got some movie suggestions, Ralph?


Wednesday, November 15, 2006

The Gift of Magnavox

Let's continue our tour of that big box flyer. On the facing page from the Tivo® and Sony items is a Magnavox 15" LCD TV for the nice price of $249. Stand-alone, or contextural gift?

There was a magic time when any TV would have been a basically stand-alone gift. A television is a self-contained unit, and the only real consideration was the space requirements. Even with more displays being incorporated into home theater systems, a TV (especially a small one like this) is basically a stand-alone gift.

For most folks, this would be great secondary TV. I can see it being used in a den, beach house, dorm room or guest room.

In the olden days, a TV was a TV -- not so much anymore, and it's those fine considerations that may make this contextural for a minority of shoppers. In 2009 broadcasters will switch over to digital broadcasting. The frequencies of all stations will change, as will the aspect ratio of the pictures broadcast. This is part of that HDTV thing we've heard so much about.

Our little Magnavox here has a 4:3 screen aspect ratio, so images broadcast today fit nicely. In 2009, everything will be sent 16:9, or "widescreen." If letterboxing isn't a viewing issue with the recipient, then everything will be fine.

Near the base of the picture in the flyer is the little note "HD Ready." What does that mean? You can take the Magnavox LCD out of the box today, plug it in and it will pull in broadcast TV signals. "HD Ready" means that, in 2009, it will display the new digital signals, but it does not have a built-in tuner to receive them. An outboard HDTV tuner will be necessary.

Now this may not be much of a problem. I suspect most of these little Magnavoxes will spend their operational lives hooked up to cable or a satellite box, so this won't be an issue. If you're thinking of buying it for a weekend home that has neither cable nor satellite service, then you'll probably have to purchase an additional HDTV tuner somewhere down the road.

Still, this is mostly a stand-alone gift.

And finally, running down Ken's shopping rules:
#1 - If they specifically ask for this Magnavox 15" LCD, fine. This is one item that you can reasonably substitute another brand of LCD for, though (I'd make sure its the same screen size, though).
#2 - If you are going to substitute, make it a brand you've heard of. There's a reason why no-name brands are soooo much cheaper -- and your recipient won't want to find out why the hard way.
#3 - For the right person, $249 for a TV isn't a bad price at all.

- Ralph

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Take it away

Ralph presents plenty of good reasons why I shouldn't get myself in a twist about the mega-storage capacity of the new Tivos, and he's right -- there's no logical reason why I should worry about it. But the Tivo is symptomatic of larger issues.

In our consumer-centric society we gather more and more moss as we roll through life, stuffing our garages, sheds, attics, and rented storage buildings full of stuff that we had to get, don't use now, but can't bear to get rid of. Now, even digital storage devices have to get bigger to hold all of our crap. And, make no mistake, once we've got the space, we'll fill it up.

When I need a new Tivo, I won't get a choice -- it'll have loads of storage whether I like it or not. But spare a moment, Ralph, for someone who wants to take the exit ramp off of the consumer super-highway, who strives to simplify and reduce their footprint, living for the moment rather than tied down with his possessions. It's not that I don't want good things, it's just that having too much dilutes the quality of the experience of that good thing, whatever it is.

I'm not perfect -- one look in my garage will tell you that -- put I keep trying. I'm reminded of this quote from the French author and aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupery: "A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away."

Monday, November 13, 2006

The Curse of Curly

One of the things that struck me about the announcements of Jack Palance's death was how his long and (mostly) distinguished acting career was collapsed down to one role -- Curly, in "City Slickers."

Granted, when you're a newscaster and you've only got two minutes to do an obit, you can only hit the high points. Its a shame that the one movie Palance will be remembered for was basically a pastiche of his most important role,

Jack Wilson in "Shane." All those great movies (we won't talk about the Italian period) and all those TV dramas (remember, he was in "Requiem for a Heavyweight") and it all comes down to Curly.

Palance isn't the only artist to suffer from the Curse of Curly. Although he wrote fugues, chorales, motets, masses, instrumental suites, Johann Pachelbel is known for one thing and one thing only -- the "Canon in D." And just try to find recordings of any of the other of the hundreds of works he composed.

Grant Wood created a number of works in a variety of media -- charcoal, metal, ink and even stained glass. But to the general public he only did one painting; "American Gothic." The Curse of Curly.

My point is this. For most people, knowing the single piece of a "one-hit wonder" is enough. But it shouldn't be. I've discovered some really wonderful music, movies, books and art just by asking "what else have they done?"

It's fine to enjoy "City Slickers." But do yourself a favor and check out "Shane" as well. The Curse of Curly only works with the uncurious.

- Ralph

Saturday, November 11, 2006

The Gift of Sony

Let's continue our stroll through a big box retailer's flyer. Next to the TiVo® DVR is the Sony S2 1GB Sports® Walkman® MP3 player. For someone who runs, walks or otherwise works out, this could be a great gift. It uses embedded memory, so there's no moving parts to jostle.

One gigabyte is enough room to store a decent amount of music -- especially if the device is used primarily for workouts. The S2 also has an FM tuner, and some exercise-oriented features, such as a pedometer, stopwatch and calorie counter.

So is it a stand-alone or a contextural gift?

It could be considered stand-alone. You can take it out the box, turn on the FM tuner and go for a job. When we look at the digital music side of it, though, it becomes contextural -- and in a way that gives most people headaches.

According to the specs, the S2 plays "MP3, ATRAC3, ATRAC3plus™, WMA(non-DRM), AAC (non-DRM)." If you're not familiar with the byzantine workings of Digital Rights Management (DRM), you can be creating a lot of work for your gift recipient. Let's break it down.

MP3 format is the one format just about any player can use. CDs transferred to your computer from your personal collection can be saved in this form (if the CDs don't have some kind of malicious DRM). Many bands on MySpace and other websites also use this format.

ATRAC3 is a Sony format that they've unsuccessfully tried to force on the public. For a while Sony digital music players ONLY played ATRAC files, requiring you to convert everything to this format in a long, slow transfer process. The Sony CONNECT™ Music online store uses this format -- which is why you can't use songs bought from CONNECT on other brands of players -- only Sony players can play ATRAC files.

WMA files are Microsoft's proprietary answer to the MP3 format. WMA files can be played on any Windows-based player, which is just about everyone except Apple. Music purchased from most online music stores are "protected" WMA files, which means they have DRM added to limit their use.

AAC format is the one used by Apple, and is the format songs purchased from the iTunes store come in. As with other online stores, DRM is added to the files to limit thier usage.

Note that the S2 can play non-DRM WMA and AAC files. What does that mean? It can't play any files in those formats if the songs were purchased from an online music store. Here's another little twist. While Sony's grudgingly allowed MP3 files onto their players, all other file formats have to be converted to ATRAC3 before they can be transferred to the player.

This is why only non-DRM WMA and AAC files can be used. The DRM prevents file format conversion (or at least makes it inconvinient). If the recipient has a lot of music purchased from iTunes, they will not be able to use them with the S2. If they prefer Windows Media Player and have bought songs from Napster, URGE, Rhapsody and most of the other online stores, those songs also will be incompatible.

This is a heavily contextural gift. If the recipient hasn't really gotten into digital music and exercises, the S2 would be a great choice. If they already download a lot of music, it might be better to consider another embedded memory player that's compatible with the bulk of their library -- either the iPod shuffle if their iTunes customers, or perhaps a Creative Labs Zen V if they're not.

And finally, running down Ken's shopping rules:
#1 - If they specifically as for the S2 Sports Walkman, get it. If not, do some research about what format their digital music's already in.
#2 - Sony's name denotes a family of products -- not just the old portable cassette player. Make sure you've got the right "Sony Walkman"
#3 - The S2 is very reasonably priced (about $120) especially now that its on sale.

- Ralph

Taming the TiVo® tirade

Ken -- who knew increased storage capacity stirred such deep passions? While it may challenge the fundamental premise of blogging, I have to tell you -- neither you nor I are the measure of all things.

Ken outlines a very sensible approach to using a DVR, and it goes to the heart of the system's appropriate use. TiVo recorders and other DVRs are designed primarily as temporary rather than archival storage units. All that being said, with the viewing habits in my house I think we can come up with ways to fill an 80-hour hard drive.

First off, there's the programs that I want to watch, and those that my wife wants. She's continually frustrated that the quilting shows she's interested in come on while she's working. Save those, and you're adding 2 hours a week. We both like "ER," but not the time slot. Add an hour (for the weeks its new). I'm interested in the silent films TCM runs. They're two hours a pop, but they're not run all the time, so figure an average of an hour a week. I could go on listing programs, but in the interest of brevity, lets just say that all told, we would probably record about 10-12 hours a week.

Now I'll be the first to give props to Ken. In his daily workout he not only burns off unwanted fat, but blows through his digital avoirdupois at the same time. Record, watch, delete. Do that on a daily basis and sure, you don't need a lot of space.

Weighing in at about twice Ken's body mass I could certainly benefit from his regimen, but my schedule's a little different. Both my wife and I have narrow windows of time to watch TV -- and sometimes those windows disappear. I don't watch in the morning -- that's when I do paperwork for DCD Records. My wife's required to be on call several nights a week, which limits her viewing time even further.

There have been times when we have not watched TV for a solid week. Plus there are some things I don't want to watch right away. D.W. Griffith's "Intolerance?" I'll save that for a snow day. There's two hours of storage that won't be freed up for months. I'll delete it when I'm done of course, but in the meantime there it sits.

Large storage capacity gives me the flexibility to hold that film for an ideal viewing time without having to forgo daily or weekly programs we want to record.

Iron Man Ken may keep his digital storage lean and mean, but Stay Puffed Ralph prefers a roomier fit.

- Ralph

Friday, November 10, 2006

80 hours?

Nice summation of the Tivo service, Ralph. But I can't come up with an answer to a question that really bugs me:

Who needs 80 hours of TV storage?

From my point of view, it's insane. Think about it this way -- the real strength of a DVR is its ability to let you "time shift." In other words, watch a show at a different time. For example, I don't usually stay up past 11:00 -- I'm an old fogey, and I'm tired from my triathlon training (see my other blog). Tivo is ideal for letting me watch "The Daily Show" while I'm riding my exercise bike at 5:30 AM. Watch the show, delete it, move on.

I've got a first-generation Tivo, the Sony SVR-2000. At the best picture quality, I can record 13 hours of programming. Occasionally I may not get to something I've recorded, and a show gets deleted. Big deal. If I couldn't get to it before, I won't get to it later -- I've got a life to lead.

So if you're anxiously waiting for your 80 hour Tivo so you can record every episode of "Lost" and "Desperate Housewives" from now until the sun quits shining, wake up and get a life. And if you really need to keep all of those shows, get a DVD recorder, or buy the series when it comes out on DVD (they all do). Better yet, get a Netflix subscription and watch something besides TV.


Wednesday, November 08, 2006

The Gift of TiVo®

Now that we've laid out the ground rules, let's go shopping. I just got another flyer from a big box store in the mail (it won't be the last), and featured on the front page is the new TiVo 80-hour box.

TiVo virtually created the demand for digital video recorders, and despite other entries into the field, remains the best service. TiVo customers tend to be loyal and fanatical — and not because of hype, but because of the smooth functionality and integrated options of the system.

All this makes it a logical choice for that loved one who's really into TV. Be careful, though. I'd call this a contextural gift. The TiVo DVR is not a stand-alone device. Like a VCR, your gift recipient has to connect it to your incoming video source (cable or satellite TV), and then connect it to their TV. That's not a big deal — those are pretty straightforward connections. But are the cables to make those connections included? If not, they won't be able to use this on Christmas Day.

The TiVo system requires access to a phone line. The box makes daily calls (usually in the very early AM) back to TiVo to receive schedule and software updates. Two more questions: is the recipient's audio/video system near a phone jack? And if so, do they have the splitter and phone cord to make the connection?

Also, remember that TiVo is a subscription service. Without activation, the TiVo DVR is nothing more than a cool-looking paperweight. Again, not a big deal to get a subscription, but its a requirement for operation.

So this is a contextural gift because of the following:
Requires simple installation
Some location requirements
Potentially requires additional cables
Requires subscription

And running down Ken's rules
#1) If they ask for it, get it. If they don't, don't.
#2) Tivo is a well-known brand. Accept no substitutes
#2) This is in the $200 range, so definitely affordable. Remember to factor in the subscription.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Do you #1 or #2 when you shop?

While I was writing my last post that expands on my shopping theme, Ken chimed in. Ken's three points are dead on. To review:
Most people buying an MP3 player as a gift are going to consider three things:

1. What the person asked for.
2. What they've heard of.
3. What they can afford.
When #1 is locked up ("Grandma, I want a 4GB iPod nano") then there's no problem (unless #3 is an issue). I was thinking about cases where #1 is either vague or non-existent. If all you know is that your niece wants one of those portable music players, then #2 and #3 will determine your purchase. I'm thinking more of cases where #1 isn't even known.

For example. You have to buy something for your niece, but you have no idea what to get. Say, you've heard about those iPod thingys (#2). Well, you've heard all the kids seem to want one, so OK. Wow -- look at the price (#3)! At your favorite big-box retailer you find a no-name player that the clerk says is just as good as an iPod, and half the price. Another perfect gift! Or is it? That's the problem of a contextural gift.

As to Ken's concerns about iPod's hard drives -- that was a general statement. If you run, jog, mountain climb or do any other physical activity that regularly subjects a player (of any brand) to repeated shocks, it's best to go with one that uses embedded memory. Remember that hard drive players have a little spinning disc with a very small arm that has to track across it like the stereo LP players of olden time. While they're designed to handle occasional jarring, sustained impact could eventually misalign these moving parts and cause problems.

Orange plays again tonight. I think the second time they get flagged, the band should play Brittany Spears' "Oops, I Did It Again." Or maybe not.

- Ralph

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Shopping made easy.

Good point about the decision-making process that should go into buying an MP3 player, Ralph. Only problem with that is that I doubt many people do it.

Think about it for a moment. Most people buying an MP3 player as a gift are going to consider three things:

1. What the person asked for.
2. What they've heard of.
3. What they can afford.

Guess who wins? Hint -- it's named after a fruit.

Seriously, iPods are "cool" -- people want them (#1). Everybody's heard of them, even your 78-year old grandmother (#2). They come at a lot of different price points (#3).
Can gift-giving get any easier? That's not an endorsement of iPods -- just a look at reality.

And by the way, what about this statement: "Buy something with a hard drive for someone into running track, and you're giving them a player that will soon be on the fritz." Sounds like a generalization to me -- got some supporting evidence that the HDD in iPods doesn't hold up?

On the subject of memes, I hope Orange County can turn it around. Maybe the band can learn that Chumbawamba song, "I get knocked down, but I get up again..."

On second thought, better not.


Contextural gift-giving

I want to talk more about this daunting task of buying consumer electronics for presents. Before we plunge into the discussion, I'd like to offer a concept to help define the problem.

It seems to me there are two kinds of gifts: self-contained and contextural. A self-contained gift is just that -- one that works all by itself. Gloves are a great self-contained gift. So is the big tin filled with three different kinds of popcorn.

A contextural present is one that has to work with other items the recipient already owns. It could require additional things not provided with it to fill its function. A car stereo, for example, requires installation in a vehicle before you can enjoy it.

A contextural present also might be something that has to fit into an existing system. A first day of issue stamp might seem like a good gift for a stamp collector, but if the gift is a U.S. regular postage stamp, and his collection is European airmails, then contexturally it's not a good fit.

Most gifts fall somewhere along the spectrum between completely self-contained and totally conxtural. Take our above-mentioned example of gloves. While they're self-contained, they do need to fit with the rest of the recipient's outerwear. If the recipient normally wears black overcoats, then brown gloves may not be the best choice (but if its cold enough, I'll bet they get used anyway).

Gift cards are an excellent way to avoid the problems of context. Most local music collectors I know would rather get a gift card to Plan 9 Music than a loved one's best guess as to what they might like. Take someone who's really into the Beatles, for example. Their collection already include the studio albums (both US and UK versions), bootlegs, early recordings and so on. A greatest hits CD would be a poor contextural gift.

IMHO, understanding this difference between contextural and self-contained gifts is critical to selecting a consumer electronics present.

I'm starting to receive sale flyers in the mail, so next time we'll start looking at specific items. Feedback welcome!

- Ralph