Multi-Modalism

I've had an exciting few days. My fiancee and I have flown back east from Seattle to visit her family. We stopped through southern New Jersey to visit her wonderful 95-year-old grandmother, who has all the machinery still ticking at full speed even as her senses fail her. (Her brother, also living in the same Quaker/Friends-run retirement facility asked her while we were there, "Are people living too long?" She replied in the affirmative, "Yes, I think we are living too long." She's not in pain right now, but she's ready to move on.)

In the middle of the night staying in a lower floor of the community, at about 3 a.m., I was woken up by a voice through the ventilation system crying over and over, "I don't want to die!" I don't know the resident in question (we were below the hall Lynn's grandmother is in, but down quite a ways), but I was very sad about it.

I feel like shouting that at times, but I'm afraid it was someone with dementia or Alzheimer's rather than a cri de coeur. It was surreal. I was afraid I was dreaming; afraid I was not. Most of the residents you meet at Medford Leas are happy, active, and at peace with their lives. None of them talk like fatalists. Part of the Quaker ethic at work, too, I think.

From existential fears shouted in the wee hours, we moved on to the bright lights of Times Square and its vicinity. We stayed at a huge discount at a nice hotel on 51st and Lexington. The experience was great until they screwed up a luggage situation at the end. Through the concierge, we managed to get tickets to Proof (currently featuring Jennifer Jason Leigh) on Saturday night. We visited friends of Lynn's way up in Riverdale that afternoon, then saw the show.

The next day, we had breakfast with a favorite friend of mine, now about six months pregnant, when the concierge called: she had dug up tickets for The Producers! Holy mackeral. By the time we agreed to the price (which was very reasonable - so reasonable we assumed Nathan Lane wasn't performing the matinee), they were sold. She called us back later, though, with more tickets, and we were in.

Holy Katz, but The Producers was great. It's certainly by far the greatest live performance I've even seen of any kind, and the show itself is terrific. We'd bought the soundtrack a few months ago, and had been enjoying it. But the acting and stage business and dialogue and - well - everything was just phenomenal. It's pretty much the ultimate Broadway musical, and they just shouldn't try to write another one again.

From the theater, we were supposed to meet a car out front that had picked up our luggage at the hotel and would take us to Penn Station. The show got out about 5.45 pm and we had a 6.30 Amtrak train. We were just a few blocks away, really, but luggage was the big thing: you can't check luggage at Penn Station any more. No lockers, no baggage check. They're just not set up to screen left luggage.

But the hotel refused to release the bags: the concierge (really a third-party in the hotel who handles tickets and transportation) had dropped the ball or the hotel had, and without our claim slips, they wouldn't give the driver the bags. He should have met us at the theater and taken us back to claim our bags. Instead, I think he gave up.

We rushed cross-town by foot to escape the theatre district, which was letting out all its matinees, grabbed a cross-town cab to Park and 51st, ran a cross town block, managed to finally get the hotel to give us bags, had the doorman get us a cab which took us to Grand Central.

Ah ha! Weren't expecting this plot twist, eh? I knew that Metro-North runs a train with just enough time to transfer (I thought it was 20 to 30 minutes, but it turned out to be 5) to the Amtrak to Hartford. We ran through the station, bought tickets, hopped on a very full train, and arrived in plenty of time to get on the Hartford bound Amtrak.

And it was well worth the fuss to see The Producers, we both agreed. Especially since we got here and weren't trapped in New Haven for the night. I lived there five years. Another night wasn't what I wanted right now.

The multi-modalism of this post refers to our means of transport. On this trip, we took, in order: town car to the airport, two planes cross country, monorail to the car rental agency, rented car to and from the retirement community, monorail to the new Newark International Airport Train Station (incredible), NJ Transit to Penn Station, cab to the hotel. The next day, subway, express bus, express bus, subway, subway. Yesterday: subway, subway, cab, cab, regional rail, national rail.

And you wonder why we're tired?

Transforming Event

Boingo Wireless launches tomorrow. I wrote about it in a brief for the New York Times and in a long article for my own 802.11b Networking News. This launch will most likely transform Wi-Fi public space access from a niche market to a national infrastructure and hasten the integration with cellular networks. Boingo is moderately sized at its launch, but started by a guy who also built from spit and whiskers Earthlink, one of the largest national ISPs.

Twisted Hat

I did a very twisted thing today. I installed Red Hat Linux 7.2 under Virtual PC 5 for Mac OS X. Yes, folks, watch the man on the high wire! Linux running under Intel chip emulation on a Unix platform that can also emulate PC and Mac OS 9. Ta Da! It's nifty. I'm curious to test its compilation speed versus the native speed of OS X compiling stuff. It'll also be nice to have multiple environments on the road. My next Seattle Times column will be about tri-platform Mac-in-puting: Unix, OS X, and Windows-via-Virtual PC. On all other platforms, you're limiting to a single platform per boot (mostly). (The WINE emulator to run Windows programs under Unix is an application emulator, not a processor simulator.)

iBook Price Blowout

I don't usually post items of a purely price-based nature, but geesus m. christopher: MacConnection is offering the $1,200 Apple iBook for under $900. Here's the link, but you have to call to place the order, which is even weirder. Do they have a phalanx of incredible up-sell telemarketers who will sell you high-margin doodads?

The order info is in an image, so it can't be scraped, either: another way to escape the comparison engines, and possibly the ire of the Manufacturer's Suggested Retail Price (discussed a few days ago in this space).

This is probably the best deal of all time for one of these puppies. It has a CD-ROM, not a DVD/CD-ROM or DVD-ROM/CD-RW. Otherwise, the specs are great. $200 of the rebate is instant; another $100 requires a form to be sent in to Apple. You have to buy the puppy by Dec. 31, 2001.

Not Our Imagination

It turns out that it's not our imagination: spam is getting worse. Fortunately, I recently switched to Entourage X, a component in Microsoft's Office v. X for OS 10.1. I reviewed this for the Seattle Times a few days ago. Entourage offers some tradeoffs, but it has powerful junk mail sorting and rulesets. I was able within a couple days to consign the worst incoming nonsense to the trash without reading it, and virtually all of the rest hits a spam folder I can look at and delete all of in a couple seconds.

The admirable Michael Fraase, mentioned in this space before, hits the spam target dead on in an article about how he's taken to filtering major ISP's email. Likewise, Adam Curry is wondering if he should just abandon email. ____ ______'s difficulties are documented as well, but he points out, There is no alternative other than to stop using email altogether.

That's the reality of the commercial marketplace. You could be like Lawrence Tribe, legendary defender and analyst of the First Amendment and simply tell people that their mail is heading for /dev/null: Professor Tribe will not be online until at least January 28, 2002. He is taking a break the essence of which is: no more e-mail until the break is over! Understand, please, that this means your message will NOT be forwarded to, or read by, Professor Tribe or by anyone on his behalf. Refreshing!

But could any of the rest of us get away with it? Not likely.

I like Adam Curry's notion of using existing tools, such as Userland Radio and other software, to create channels of email between known entities. That's what I was getting at the other day in the sense of using whitelists, not blacklists: let me define who I want to hear from, not a list of those who are banned. Some telephone companies offer a whitelist service in which some callers get right through, while others listen to a brief message explaining that unsolicited phone callers should hang up or be in violation of federal law for disobeying the message. As I've been using Entourage over a few weeks, I've gradually increased my whitelist by using the This is Not Junk Mail link on mail Entourage thinks is junk mail and adding mailing list rules, adding folks to my address book, defining individual pieces of email as not junk.

Meanwhile, the group at XNS.org had and has a solution for this problem, but it requires a lot of sign-off by application developers, email users, and mail transfer agent (MTA) builders like sendmail and Exchange. It's not impossible, and it's a beautiful and elegant (and legally binding) solution. Unfortunately, it requires too much buy-in to work across the whole Net. Yet.

Sharing Well with Others

____ ______ writes: Here's something really boring. Some spammer is using my email address as the return address on a lot of spam. Result? Thousands of bounces coming back at me, interspersed with spam directed at me. Is email dying?�

The fact that you can send email from practically any email server that you have access to with any arbitrary return address should be relegated to the dust bin. Perhaps we can't close down all open relays (mail servers that allow anyone on the Internet to send email to anyone else via them). But we can stop an old practice: there's no good reason any more that someone should be able to send email from a return address that doesn't belong to them.

There should be mechanisms that would authenticate this, like, for instance, authenticated sendmail. I maintain that this change wouldn't imperil anonymity: you can still get anonymous accounts which have their own policies and enforcements about the amount of email that's sent out. No, what it means is that no mail server should accept email with a From address that doesn't have a keyed authentication message that uses an algorithm that cannot be forged: digital signatures, for instance.

It might impose a computational burden. It might impose an adminsitrative burden. But when you find out that mid-sized ISPs employ four to a dozen employees whose sole job is to deal with email and related abuse - much like the dozen employees in the New York transit system who flatten dollar bills, no kidding - there's little reason to not impose this cost.

Your Pricing May Vary

J.D. Lasica wondered in regards to some pricing at Amazon.com where they say that they can't show it on an individual page: "...why [Amazon.com] can display the price in my shopping cart but not on the product page. Does it have to do with shopping comparison bots, where Amazon's price would compare unfavorably? Or does it have to do with Amazon's arrangement with its big retail partners like Target?"

It's a funny world, ain't it? Amazon.com gets co-op dollars from manufacturers to promote their goods. Co-op dollars are a huge point of contention between chain/large stores and independent stores (bookstores, electronics sellers, etc., etc.). Co-op dollars are ostensibly a way for manufacturers to push sales by encouraging retailers to advertise goods that they might otherwise not promote. Retailers get their advertising subsidized.

It's a dirty secret, and Amazon.com has been surprisingly forthright about aspects of it. The term in the book industry is merchandizing. Back a couple years ago, Doreen Carjaval of the New York Times wrote what I thought was a very unfair article with a chip on its shoulder on the front page of the paper about how Amazon.com was accepting co-op and other merchandizing dollars to promote items in their What We're Reading section and other places on the site. The article was unfair because it made it sounds as if Amazon.com were doing something that didn't conform to industry practice.

Amazon.com's response was quite good: they said, you know, we shouldn't be toeing the line, we should be more upfront than other folks in the industry, so they added a link on pages that had support dollars attached that explained this. They became (and still are, I believe) the most transparent retailer in this regard.

This is one reason why I was annoyed last summer when they started messing around with pricing, shipping, and surcharges: I felt they weren't keeping in mind that they were confusing the consumer enough that it bordered on misleading the consumer. After a discussion with some folks at the top of the company (after my appearance in the WSJ, the LA Times, and on CNBC commenting on this problem), I accepted their explanation that it wasn't an attempt to mislead, but rather the top brass didn't quite understand how much they were tweaking.

Since that point, prices have been essentially fixed: discounts have remained, and the special order (4-6 week on order books) surcharge was further made transparent through a special note on pages on which the surcharge applied. They did learn this lesson, and they did once again become the most transparent retailer.

Back to the issue of why they can't show these prices. If you accept co-op dollars, you also agree to not advertise products below a minimum price. It's a shady area in that manufacturers are not per se allowed to set prices for goods; retailers may charge what they will. But manufacturers can choose to sell to some merchants and not others as long as the reason they choose not to sell is based on fair principles: that is, they can't choose to not sell in a black neighborhood or because another merchant told them not to sell. But they can restrict sales based on conditions, or not sell at all.

They also place these conditions on co-op and merchandizing money. If you take the money, you don't advertise below MSRP (manufacturer's suggested retail price). For the purposes of the Web, manufacturers have apparently agreed that the price covers the Web page on which the product appears, but once it's added into a shopping cart, that's a private transaction. This does, as you suggest, also limit the ability of comparison engines (such as my own isbn.nu) to provide the actual lowest price.

The reason for preserving MSRP is to prevent price-cutting retailers from using co-op dollars as a tool to undercut other retailers in the same or similar channels. Manufacturers must protect the channel fairly or face problems from the government and the retailers.

Hope that suffices as my understanding of the issue!