Sunday, November 30, 2008

No More Black Friday Fiascos for Me

You know those early-bird Black Friday deals that so many retailers have begun offering each year on the morning after Thanksgiving? Well, I contend they are inherently unfair to the consumer.

A couple of years ago, I saw an ad on Walmart’s Website advertising a laptop computer for less than $300. I wanted one. So, even though I don’t like going to bed early and I hate getting up a second before 6:00 AM, I decided to hit the sack before midnight and set my alarm for 4:30.

I got up, splashed some water on, got dressed and headed for Walmart. I got there a couple minutes before the witching hour, but the parking lot was already so packed with cars that I had to park illegally in one of those striped handicapped areas. It wasn’t a true parking space. They always stripe off an area around the actual parking places that is large enough to park a bus, or a couple more cars. So it’s not like I was actually depriving anyone of a space.

Anyway, I braved the throngs and went inside, looking for my deal. It was barely past five in the morning when I was told the computers, all 30 of them, had already been sold. “How can that be?” I asked the clerk. “It hasn’t been five minutes since they went on sale.”

He told me they had started handing out tickets at around 2:00 AM, since Walmart is open all night. So the shoppers who were in the store at that time were the lucky ones who got to take home a new laptop on the cheap.

So that begs the question; if Walmart’s ad said the computers would go on sale at 5:00, then why were they giving out tickets to purchase them at 2:00? It meant, virtually, that everyone who had a ticket prior to five o’clock already had their computer in hand. They had a ticket, so all they had to do was trade it in for a computer at 5:00. It wasn’t fair to those shoppers, like me, who were na├»ve enough the think that a sale starting at five o’clock would actually start at that time.

In desperation, I went to Circuit City. They had also advertised a laptop deal, not quite as good as Walmart’s, but not bad. I knew I didn’t have much of a shot. By the time I got there it was already 5:30. But I was up and out, so I thought I would at least try.

I learned the same story there. Even though the store didn’t actually open until five o’clock, they started handing out tickets to those waiting in line a couple hours early. Again, a 5:00 AM sale had actually become a 3:00 AM sale. I learned my lesson.

The lesson learned was that since all the really good items are gone before the sales start on Black Friday, and the only way to get one of the products you’re shopping for is to get to the store hours early, spend most of the night there, and hope you’re one of the shoppers that get a ticket. I’m not going to play that game. I’ll forego the bargains. What I might have saved in dollars is spent in time and angst.

So, this year, I did a bit of shopping on Black Friday again. But I slept in until almost eight o’clock. I got up; my daughter and I went out for breakfast, and then we proceeded to Walmart where the Black Friday deal on a Blu-Ray disc player was for only $128.

When I got there, there were no more of those items left on the floor, so I asked an associate to check the back room. He said he didn’t think there were any more back there but he would look. I reminded him that the Walmart online site assured me that he did have some in stock.

A few minutes later he came out and said he had found two of the units, hiding on a shelf behind a bunch of carts and boxes. He would have to move a lot of stuff so it would take him a few minutes to dig one out. Oh, and one more thing: The price was no longer $128 since it was after 11:00 and the early-bird special was over. The computer had automatically kicked the price back up to the regular $198.

I told him I had no delusions that I would actually be getting one for the sale price. So I said go ahead and dig one out for me.

I happily walked out of the store with a full-priced Blu-Ray disc player. It was my first one. And although I would have been much happier had I gotten it for the sale price, I wasn’t going to play that early-bird game again, no matter what the savings.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Things We No Longer Need

My latest column is about how technology has made some of the everyday items we still use obsolete. To read it, please go to my other blog, Wilstar's SciTech Blog.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Priest: If You Voted for Obama, You're Going to Hell

Did you vote for Barack Obama for president? Well, if so, it’s off to hell for you unless you repent and perform some kind of penance. At least that’s the view of one Catholic priest in South Carolina.

The Rev. Jay Scott Newman of St. Mary’s Catholic Church told his parishioners that they should not partake of Holy Communion if they voted for Obama unless they confess their grave sin and do penance for it. Seriously folks, a Catholic priest has publicly told his congregation that their eternal souls are in jeopardy of being condemned to hell unless they repent of their evil political ways.

His main problem with Obama seems to be the president-elect’s support for abortion rights laws. He claims that Obama is pro-abortion, which is not true. He is pro-choice. There is a difference.

I am not in favor of using abortion for birth control. But I am in favor of letting the woman decide. It’s her body. I am definitely pro-choice. But I am not necessarily pro-abortion, although I would recommend getting an abortion in the case where a pregnant woman finds out her fetus is severely mentally handicapped.

I mean, let’s face it people. Forget the moral question for just one moment. Look at it from a point of logic and pragmatism. Why bring a deformed baby into the world with no hope of ever being normal and who will almost surely rely on tax dollars for support at some point?

Ok, so you can’t forget the moral question? Fine. Morality cannot and should not be legislated. There is no universal morality. It’s not the bible; it’s not the Koran. Morality is what society decides it is. We don’t need a list of commandments that tell us not to murder or rob our fellow humans. Everyone knew those things were wrong from the beginning.

And so-called pro-lifers insist that abortion is murder. Well, it most certainly is not. Murder is a crime that is coded within our laws of the land. Abortion is legal in every state. That means it is not murder. If you believe it is morally wrong to have an abortion, then don’t have one. Counsel others not to have abortions. Take out ads claiming that abortion is morally wrong, at least in your worldview. But don’t try to prevent someone who does not share your beliefs from exercising their rights by trying to take those rights away.

What if I thought it was morally wrong to allow a baby to be born knowing full well it would be a drain on society because it was discovered to be severely mentally handicapped. What if I lobbied to pass laws against bringing such a burden into society and forcing pregnant mothers to have an abortion if they were carrying such a fetus? Would I be wrong?

Yes, I obviously would be wrong. If you’re pregnant and you know you’re carrying a retarded fetus, you should have the right for yourself to decide if you want to give birth to it. And, by the same token, if another pregnant woman decides that she doesn’t want to give birth to her fetus, she should also be unencumbered by the moral judgments of others that seek to prevent her from exercising her right to terminate her pregnancy. If it’s fair one way, it’s fair the other.

Priests like Newman along with other conservative fundamentalists who believe they hold the key to everyone’s salvation give religion a bad name. They make religion dangerous. Religion is basically useless anyway. There is nothing that can be done with religion that cannot also be done without it. But it becomes far more worthless and even damaging to society as long as there remain those like Newman and Pat Robertson and their entire ilk.

Our country will be much better off when they finally go the way of Jerry Falwell. Unfortunately, there are many zealots-to-be, brainwashed by their parents and church, waiting in the wings to continue their oppression against freedom of choice in this country.

Selling Alcohol on Sunday? Not in My State!

I don’t drink much alcohol. Once in a while I might have a light beer with dinner, because my son and I like to frequent specialty and international restaurants for a variety of fare. We both like to try different types of food. He likes to try different kinds of beer. I usually settle for Miller Lite.

The only mixed drink I care anything about is a margarita. And I admit I like the so-called sissy drinks because I can’t taste the alcohol in them. But I wouldn’t be caught drinking one in public.

As for wine, it has to be the nastiest-tasting beverage I’ve ever put into my mouth. I’ve tried all kinds, and don’t like any of it. I don’t keep any alcoholic beverages in my refrigerator, either. I bought a six-pack of beer once this year. It lasted for months and I shared it with my son.

That said, I think that Indiana’s restriction on the sale of carry-out alcoholic beverages on Sunday is an archaic law that needs to be changed as soon as possible. There is absolutely no good reason for restricting sales of alcohol one day a week.

The law originally grew out of a desire by early Christians to force compliance by the masses on their sense of moral superiority. It was the same reason this country had a Prohibition Era. And it is for the same reason that prostitution is now illegal in most states. It didn’t used to be until the self-righteous protectors of public morality started lobbying back in the early years of the twentieth century. But I digress.

We are now well into the twenty-first century. It is passed time that we base our laws on more practical matters, such as economic issues, interstate commerce, and even what the public at large desires, not just the religious public.

In 2006, according to a poll conducted by the Indianapolis Star, half of Indiana residents were comfortable with a ban or Sunday alcohol sales. This year, the same poll revealed that the percentage of those who want the ban to continue has dropped by five percentage points. The new poll shows the number of people who say they are in favor of Sunday sales of alcohol has now overtaken and surpassed the number who want the ban to continue, if only by a slight margin.

Liquor store owners are generally against the idea of Sunday sales of packaged liquor. That would seem to be counterintuitive. But when you consider that most liquor stores are small, individually-owned establishments, being open on Sunday for only a modest increase in total weekly sales would not be desirable.

But Indiana remains one of only 15 states that prohibit packaged liquor sales on Sunday. That number is down from 19 just two years ago. States are learning that opening Sunday for carry-out liquor sales increases their tax coffers considerably. Indiana could gain $2 million annually. In times of economic distress, states must look to increase revenue wherever it can, as long as it does no harm to the consumer.

Going into the supermarket on a Sunday and buying a 12-pack of beer doesn’t seem like such an evil premise. Yet we can’t do it. Midnight on Saturday is fine, but wait until six o’clock the next morning and it becomes a crime. There is simply no logic in it.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

America is Respected Again

Although it is old news who won the election, the continuing news is the dramatic effect Obama’s win is having and will continue to have on not only this country but the world.

I was for Obama from the start, but I could have lived with a McCain presidency. McCain is very knowledgeable about how things work in Washington and he often was a maverick. But his continuing link with the canker sore in office now, coupled with the two major flubs he made during his campaign, cost him the election.

Those two flubs were picking Sarah Palin as his choice for vice-president, and the series of questionable decisions he made in the wake of Wall Street’s meltdown. His seemingly chaotic reaction was not presidential.

Still, I could have managed to support a McCain presidency. At least I would have given him a chance and stood behind him until he started to screw things up. And who’s to say that Obama will, in the end, be an effective president? We’ll know soon enough, but if he runs his administration the same way he ran his campaign then this country is in for years of extraordinarily effective leadership.

The biggest sigh of relief I gave when Obama won was not that a Democrat will soon be in power. I’m neither a Democrat nor a Republican; I’m independent. It wasn’t even that I happen to agree with most of Obama’s policy positions. No, the biggest sigh of relief was because, at least for awhile, the faction of the voting public that kept Bush in office in 2004 got a huge national rebuke.

The fundamentalist evangelical conservative right, that albatross of society that has had a chip on its shoulder for the last eight years, has now been put in its place. Oh, the evangelicals are still out there, by the millions. They are at this moment planning and plotting their strategy to retake the government in 2012.

And this is not an anti-religion sentiment. Barack Obama is a professed Christian. The vast majority of Americans have a religion. It is the evangelicals, those who insist that snakes can talk and that people can really survive for three days inside a fish, who are the dangerous ones. It is they who have held the White House for eight years.

That is why those of us who use our human brain power to make decisions instead of relying on ancient mysticism must continue to be vigilant. We must be preemptive. We cannot afford to allow a George W. Bush clone, such as Sarah Palin, to ever ascend to power in this country again. Just look at the mess that was made of this country over the last eight years.

We had become the laughing stock of the modern world. Americans abroad had been shy about revealing their nationality. Some even said they were from Canada. Many who have been living overseas refused to fly the American flag, not because they are not proud of their country, but out of fear of being ridiculed.

From England to China, from Australia to the Middle East, expatriates, vacationers, and business travelers learned that it is best not to reveal that they are Americans. That had been especially true over the last four years.

But not anymore. Being an American is cool again, and not just in America. We are now seen as a society who has come to terms with its mistakes of four and eight years ago and who now is in the mood to make amends. We have elected a cosmopolitan leader who can unite all factions under a single banner. We are no longer a country of blue states and red states, but the United States.

Yes, I know there are still red states on the political map. But don’t look at the Electoral College map, even though it is turning seriously blue. Look at the map that CNN showed a couple of days after the election. It showed that, except for a very narrow strip of the country running roughly from Virginia through Arkansas, every county in every state was considerably bluer than it was four years ago. Nearly the whole country has made a giant shift toward pragmatism.

And that trend, which started in 2006, is a good sign that this country is beginning to leave behind the antediluvian antics of the religious right and is now starting to embrace tolerance, openness, and global citizenship. It’s a good trend.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Watching Movies Isn't like it Used to Be

How do you watch movies?

Prior to 1980, the only answers to that question would have been either “at the movie theater,” or “on television.” If you wanted to watch a recent movie without commercials, your only option was the movie theater. Movies played on broadcast TV, which was the only kind of TV available before HBO came to households in the late ‘70s, were all years old and filled with commercial interruptions. Most of the time, they were heavily edited, too.

When I was a child in the 1960s, I looked forward to seeing the new releases every weekend at the Pixie Theater. For 50 cents, I could sit through a double feature, usually a couple of Disney flicks or maybe a pair of those beach movies with Frankie Avalon or Tony Curtis.

But around 1979, a new option became available. The VCR, or video cassette recorder, had been on the market for a couple of years to record shows from live TV. But it didn’t take long before vendors started to rent theatrical movies on video tape. Rental fees were about five or six bucks per movie back then. And the number of titles was abysmal.

There were no actual video rental stores yet. The Hollywood movie studios were in court trying to get the VCR banned because of their eternal fear of copyright infringement. So the only places to rent movies were at specialty stores. Most had fewer than a dozen titles from which to choose, mostly skin flicks.

But when the Supreme Court ruled against the movie studios, they began to take an if-you-can’t-beat-them-join-them attitude. They started releasing movies on video cassette by the thousands. So people could now watch movies in the theater, or wait a few months until the film was released on video and watch the same thing at home, commercial free.

There were problems, though. Notably, the VCR is a sequential-access device. If you want to watch a particular scene, you have no choice but to fast forward through everything that comes before it. And then, of course, you have to rewind the tape when the movie is over before you can view it again.

Secondly, video taped movies were almost always edited to fit the square TV screen, meaning parts of every scene were cropped off. And the quality was no better, and often worse, than a regular TV show, not nearly as good as watching the same flick in a theater.

In the 1990s, the DVD came on the scene. It cured the quality problem, allowing movie watchers to enjoy the picture in as high a quality as the old standard-definition TV set would allow. And DVDs are random-access devices, so you don’t have to rewind and you can skip to a scene instantly.

Added to the better picture quality, DVDs were also capable of producing theater-quality surround sound. Coupled with a big-screen TV and a 5.1 surround sound system, you could watch your favorite movies with nearly the same quality as in a theater, minus the sticky floors and strewn popcorn.

Today, however, there are many more ways to watch a movie at home. The DVD still rules, but the new Blu-Ray disc provides high-definition quality to match up with the latest high-definition, wide-screen TV sets.

In addition, you can stream movies from sources such as Netflix to your computer and watch them any time you want. Or you can order them to be shipped by mail, so no more going to the rental store and then having to remember to take your movie back before the late fees kick in.

The very latest way to watch a movie is to stream it from Netflix using the latest version of Xbox due out later this month. That means you can by-pass the computer screen and watch movies directly on your high-definition TV without having to use a DVD or any other physical medium.

Compared to when I was a kid, it sure is much easier to watch a movie these days.