Category Archives: Commentary

Answering Difficult Questions from Our Child

For several years now, part of my 7-year-old son’s bedtime ritual has been to mark off the day on a calendar that he keeps in the room.  The calendar lists many holidays and he often will ask my wife and me to explain what they are.  I am writing this post on September 12, 2011 and last night he asked us to explain what "Patriot Day" was.

My wife and I had both paid attention to our share of remembrances, but we hadn’t openly discussed the anniversary around our son.  We also hadn’t had the TV or commercial radio on all day (which is actually pretty normal for a weekend day), so he hadn’t heard or seen any of the coverage either.  The events of September 11, 2001 aren’t currently covered in school for his age group and we hadn’t had previous occasion to discuss them with him, so this was the first time we needed to address the issue. 

I know that we probably could have largely avoided the issue by giving a simplistic answer, such as "It is a day where we recognize American heroes" or something similar to that.  That type of evasive answer somehow felt dishonest, though, so we instead did our best to provide a child-friendly explanation of events that still feel almost entirely inexplicable even to my grown-up mind.  During the conversation, he frequently asked us variations on the question "why?"  We did our best to explain that there really isn’t a good answer to that question.

We weren’t blindsided by the need to address the issue.  It was obviously a possibility that he would see or here some reference to 9/11 around the 10th anniversary and ask us about it.  In fact, it wasn’t really a surprise that his calendar commemorated the day and that was what triggered the question.  For that reason, my wife and I did already have ideas in mind for how to address the subject, although it wasn’t easy to actually express the right words when the time actually came.

We started off by first asking him if he had heard anything about the events, either at school, from friends, or from some other source.  When he said he hadn’t, we then explained that some very bad people had attacked buildings in New York City and Washington D.C., causing many people to get killed.  One thing we avoided was telling him the specifics of how the attacks were carried out, mainly because we do fly somewhat frequently and we feared that part of it would be too much for him to handle.  I’m sure we would have answered direct questions, but he didn’t ask for more details of that type.

We tried to focus on the heroism of the firefighters, police officers, and even civilian bystanders that risked and, in too many cases, lost their lives trying to help get people to safety.  He specifically asked us where they took the people that they rescued and we told him that those who were injured were taken to hospitals, some were simply moved out of harm’s way, and that some of those rescued joined the effort to rescue others.  We tried really hard to convey that the attacks themselves represented the worst of what people can do, but that much of the immediate response brought out some of the very best of humanity and that those heroes are the focus of the recognition of the anniversary.

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Why I Don’t Have a Palm Pre Yet

June 6th was the launch date for the Palm Pre, the heavily hyped new smartphone from Palm and Sprint.  What I really want in a phone is something that matches the elegance and simplicity of the user interface on Apple’s iPhone, but still includes a physical keyboard and multitasking capabilities.  The Pre appears to be a very close fit, almost certainly much better than the Windows-mobile based HTC Touch Pro that I bought last year.

I definitely tend to be an early-adopter on new gadgets, so it certainly wouldn’t have been surprising if I had run out to buy a Pre last weekend.  In fact, I would have very much liked to have made that purchase.  Unfortunately, I’m already a Sprint customer and, as I mentioned earlier, I purchased a new phone last year.  Because of this, I am not currently eligible for upgrade pricing, which means that any phone purchased now would cost me considerably higher than the new or upgrade eligible customer pricing, which, of course, is the pricing that Sprint and Palm are advertising publicly.

I am, of course, under a 2-year contract with Sprint that was a necessary condition for the purchase of my last phone.  I completely recognize the validity and legality of that contract and that it is the underlying reason why I am not eligible for upgrading without a price penalty.  My purpose in this post is not to argue that my situation is somehow unfair or that I am being denied an entitlement.  I never had any expectation of being able to upgrade early and I don’t believe that there is anything unethical, much less illegal, about the system.

What I do question pretty strongly is whether or not the current business model used by the cell phone industry is a correct one in today’s marketplace.  Particularly since Apple has turned the smartphone into a much more mainstream product with the iPhone, the industry has entered a phase of extremely rapid growth and enhanced competition with frequent introduction of new models with desirable new features.  I strongly question whether customers are going to continue to be willing to accept a system that requires a 2 year wait between upgrades.

I had initially started thinking about this as subject for a blog post after getting into a Twitter discussion of it during the day of the Pre launch.  I got busy with other things and didn’t find time to start working on it until later.  In the meantime, this became a very hot subject generating a lot of coverage both in blogs and the mainstream press after Apple announced the third-generation version of the iPhone and AT&T revealed that the lower pricing would not be available to current iPhone owners that are still under contract.  This is a change from the approach taken with the last version of the iPhone, which was offered at the new-customer price to owners of the previous version, regardless of contract status.

The central idea behind current business model used by the cell phone industry is that the carriers subsidize a portion of the purchase price for the phone in exchange for the customer committing to a service contract, generally for 2 years.  If the customer chooses to switch carriers before the contract is up, he/she is obligated to pay a fairly substantial fee to buy out the contract.  Most carriers offer the customer the option of a smaller discount on an a new phone half way through the contract.  After the contract expires, the customer is generally eligible to again get the same subsidy offered to a new subscriber.

The contract system eliminates a lot of the need for carriers to expend much effort in customer retention, outside of the discounted phones offered at the end of the contract.  This likely saves the companies a lot of money, but is also almost certainly the biggest contributor to the industry’s reputation for poor customer service.  I have found that no matter which of the big cell phone carriers is mentioned, it doesn’t take long for someone to start telling stories about their horrible experiences.

It is in the best interest of the cellular carriers for most phones to have non-subsidized prices that are prohibitively high for most people since, otherwise, it is a safe bet that most people would forgo the contract.  This would make it much easier for customers to switch carriers at will and, thus, would greatly increase the cost and effort that the companies would have to expend towards retention.  I have little doubt that this would dramatically improve the quality of the customer experience, but it might or might not have a negative impact on profitability.

The big question is whether or not the non-subsidized prices really reflect the true cost of a cell phone or if they are kept artificially inflated by the cell phone manufacturers as a result of the subsidy-based sales model.  I admit that I have no direct knowledge, but my educated speculation is that the subsidized prices are probably more realistic.  The non-subsidized prices for phones (especially smartphones) simply seem way out of proportion with the pricing for other portable electronics.  In most cases, those prices are pretty close to what you would pay for a full-featured laptop computer and considerably higher than netbooks, stand-alone PDAs, or portable media players, any of which would seem more comparable technology.

The most obvious direct comparison would really be between the iPhone and the iPod Touch, which is basically an iPhone without the cellular radio or camera.  The pricing information for the 16GB version of the new iPhone 3GS has indicated that it costs $199 fully-subsidized (the price widely advertised), $399 for customers 1-year into their 2-year contract, or $599 un-subsidized.  The suggested retail price of the 16GB iPod Touch is $299 and it can be found in the $260-$275 range if you shop around.  I can certainly see where the added features of the iPhone would justify a higher price, but does it really make sense that they would double it?

In all fairness, my instinct looking at those numbers is that the $399 price offered after 1-year is probably the most realistic one.  While I suspect the price on the iPod Touch is also a bit inflated (it doesn’t really have direct competitors), it really does look like the $199 price probably brings in a pretty thin profit margin, if there is any at all.  The same is probably true with the similarly priced Palm Pre, although it does also have somewhat lighter specs, including only 8GB of memory. Even if the subsidies do push the prices down below the actual cost of the phone, I can still see justification for why the carriers might want to subsidize even for existing customers still under contract in order to prolong their contract and help to ensure loyalty.

I think that they might want to look to the satellite TV business as a possible example.  I’ve been a DirecTV customer for a number of years and they also use a system of contracts and subsidized equipment.  The big difference from the cellular business, though, is that DirecTV lets current customers upgrade their equipment (such as going to a DVR or hi-definition) at the fully subsidized price no matter how far they are into a contract.  The one catch is that doing so will reset their contractual start date to the date of the upgrade.  This helps to accommodate any need that the customer might have to move up to something better or different, while also pushing further back the date at which he/she might be able to switch to a competitor.

I do imagine that the cellular industry would probably prefer to stick with the current fairly customer-unfriendly system for as long as possible, but I do seem some recent signs that they may very well be changing their approach.  The recent publicity over AT&T’s prices for iPhone upgrades hasn’t been very good for them, even if they are pretty clearly within their rights.  A fan base as loyal as the more vocal iPhone owners, particularly when they are so willing to spend more money to make sure they have the latest and greatest, really does need to be cultivated and protected.  Policies that seem to directly target those loyal customers may not be in the company’s best interest, even if they appear to be the most financially prudent on the surface.

Another interesting development is Sprint’s recent introduction of the Sprint Premier loyalty program.  Customers that have achieved high longevity (10 years or more) or have one of the higher-end service plans (priced over $69.99/month, a fairly common price point for a smartphone with both a voice and data plan) are automatically enrolled in that program.  While the program offers a number of smaller benefits, the big one is that those customers are eligible for the fully-subsidized upgrade price at the end of the first year of a 2-year contract.  While Sprint’s recent issues with customer retention probably made this more necessary for them, it still is a pretty clear acknowledgement that higher-end customers are increasingly unwilling to wait 2 years between upgrades.

The Challenges of Writing

Anyone who follows this blog at all has certainly noticed that I am far from prolific.  At my best, I’ve occasionally managed to write up 1-2 posts a week, although it also isn’t that unusual for me to sometimes go several weeks without posting anything.  I love having a forum for sharing my thoughts, but I tend to struggle both with finding the time and the motivation to actually sit down and write something.

To address this subject honestly, I definitely have to start by admitting that I am a terrible procrastinator when it comes to writing.  I’ve often said that I generally like writing, but it is probably more accurate to say that I like the idea or writing and the end result of having written.  Motivating myself to sit down and actually write something has never been overly easy, regardless of whether it is something like a blog post that I choose on my own to write or if it is something assigned like a school paper or a work document.  It is very common that the basic form and content of something that I intend to write will rattle around in my mind for quite a few days before I finally get around to sitting down and typing it.

I also can get pretty easily distracted while writing.  In the past, particularly back when I was in school, the most likely distractions were from other people, television, phone calls, or that kind of thing.  For that most part, that could usually be pretty easily managed in such a way that the temptations could be minimized.  With most of my writing now done on Internet-connected computers, there is a lot of readily-available competition for my attention.  Even when I find the time and motivation to sit down and start writing, it is awfully easy to get sidetracked by an incoming email or to be distracted by what I think might be a quick visit to Twitter or Facebook. 

Reading discussion boards, RSS feeds, other blogs and general news/information sites do pretty often win out when I find a block of time where I could possibly do some writing on a blog post.  This is particularly common on my lunch breaks during my work week.  I have a small laptop computer (essentially an early version of what the press commonly calls a "netbook") that I usually take with me when heading off to a restaurant at lunch.  Even when I have the intent of doing some writing during lunch, it isn’t unusual for me to spend more time just surfing the web.  To be honest, writing isn’t really the most relaxing break during a busy day. 

My Amazon Kindle 2 has also become a major competitor for my time, having pretty dramatically increased the amount of time that I am spending on reading for leisure.  Particularly in the evenings after a full day at work and the kid has been put to bed, it is very tempting to just sprawl out on the sofa reading a book on the Kindle instead of sitting down at the computer to work on a blog post.  I have also been opting to spend many of my recent work lunch hours with the Kindle instead of the laptop computer as well.

Brevity has never been one of my strengths as a writer.  Although I generally received very good grades on written works in school and I have often received praise for documents at my jobs, the one common criticism that I do receive is that I can be too wordy.  My blog posts do tend to be pretty long and it isn’t very often that I complete one in a single sitting.  At any given time, it isn’t that unusual for me to have at least a couple unfinished posts in progress.  Knowing this tendency, I always make sure to upload unfinished posts to the blog as a "draft" in order to make it possible for me to work on it from my desktop PC, laptop, or even from my cell phone whenever I find the time and motivation to do so.  Possibly a bit appropriately, even this very post sat partially-written in the “drafts” folder for quite a while before I got around to finishing and publishing it.

I keep trying to come up with ways to switch to shorter, more frequent posts, but I’ve never had much luck with it.  One obvious idea would be to basically just post whatever I can complete in a single writing session along with a "to be continued" tag.  That approach doesn’t appeal to me that much because it limits my ability to revise.  It isn’t that uncommon that I come back to a post after a day or two and rework portions I’ve already written, move text around or remove it, and/or add text at places other than the end.  I don’t really like the idea of posting something before I’m at least reasonably happy with it.

I’ve also experimented with easily recurring ideas such as “week in review” posts.  My problem with this is that I have a bit of a hard time actually coming up with anything interesting to say when I follow that approach.  A number of years ago, I tried for a while to keep a personal journal.  I pretty religiously forced myself to spend 15 minutes or so writing in it every night before going to bed.  Initially, it went ok, but I eventually found that way too many of the entries were starting off with something akin to “Nothing much of interest happened today” and I eventually just abandoned the whole thing.  Recurrent blog post subjects strike me as having the same basic problem and seem likely to go down the same path.

Finally, I think that one other major obstacle that I find difficult to overcome in this blog is simple fear of actually writing about certain topics.  Politics immediately come to mind as a key subject that interests me quite a bit and generates some pretty strong opinions for me, but which I am reluctant to delve into much on this blog.  Part of the reason is that I’m simply not sure that I have the time or motivation to become sufficiently well-informed to avoid sounding naive or, worse, citing things that are simply wrong.  I also guess I’m a little worried about potentially offending friends or family members (my main readers) with opinions on controversial topics.  I don’t avoid the topic entirely (there are a couple political posts in the archives for this site), but I don’t think it will ever become a staple of the site either.

I know that I am going to keep posting to the blog and that I’ll probably always keep trying to find ways to increase the publication frequency, but I also suspect it will always remain at least somewhat intermittent.  I just hope that I can somehow manage to make up for the lack of quantity with at least some level of quality.

Week in Review 11/9/08: Elections and In-Laws

Depending on whether I have enough to say and how disciplined about it I end up being, this may or may not turn into a weekly post on here.  I’m a terrible procrastinator when it comes to writing, but maybe I can talk myself into spending a little time each weekend writing up a few thoughts about whatever caught my attention during the previous week.

On a national (and probably even world) scale, the biggest event of the past week was obviously last Tuesday’s election.  I haven’t really made it a secret in previous posts that I’m a Democrat and supported Barack Obama’s run for president.  Therefore, I was happy with the results of the presidential election.  After the past 8 years, it is definitely nice to be back on the winning side and I do have hope that this will signal a positive change in direction for the country.

I do think that President-elect Obama has a very difficult job ahead of him.  More so than in the other presidential elections that have taken place since I’ve been old enough to vote, I genuinely felt quite a bit of enthusiasm as I voted for him.  I was certainly very aware of his policy positions and agree with him on most issues, but I also have an impression that he is someone with a vision that could genuinely lead to correcting some of the biggest negatives that I have seen in our political system, particularly in areas of corruption and cronyism and a sometimes stifling fear of trying something different.   It is pretty clear to me that I am not alone in feeling that way about what Obama has to offer, but I also think that will prove to be both a blessing and a major challenge for him.  He goes into office with a remarkably supportive public, but he also faces the potential to disappoint dramatically if he fails to live up to his promise.

Of course, this election also represented an historic breakthrough as this country selected its first African-American president.  I was very disappointed, though, that I couldn’t help feel the euphoria surrounding that was blunted dramatically by the fact that a majority of voters here in California, among others, also decided to vote in favor of continued discrimination against homosexuals.  At least here in California, many of the arguments used in support of Proposition 8 were so ludicrous that I can’t  help but see it as simple excuse-making by those that don’t want to admit bigotry even to themselves.  I do still believe that the clear trend is in the right direction here and I was at least heartened somewhat by how close the vote was on Proposition 8, particularly with younger voters pretty decisively opposing the continued discrimination. I do believe this setback to be temporary, but I was truly hoping that this would be more of a year of breakthroughs on multiple fronts.

Shifting gears to my personal life, this week was dominated by one of the recurring events regularly experienced by those of us who do have marriage rights: a visit by the in-laws.  My wife’s parents currently live in Arizona and we typically manage two visits with them per year, usually with us making one trip out there (which we did last February) and them coming out here one time.  For this visit, they arrived last Wednesday and will be staying through tomorrow.  While they aren’t quite the constantly "on-the-go tourists" that my parents usually are during their visits, I’m still pretty tired after a weekend of company, even though it was a very pleasant and positive visit.  I think maybe I’m becoming too used my wife’s and my usual weekend ritual of tag-team napping, making the change of pace a bit harder.

It has been a good visit and I’ve been very pleased with the amount of quality time that they have had with their grandson.  Andy’s grandmother has particularly bonded very well with him, spending quite a bit of time playing toys and reading with him.  Both grandparents have put in some time working on drawing and writing with him and he has also enjoyed demonstrating his various computer games to them.  His grandparents also joined us for his weekly Gymboree class this morning and our usual Sunday morning breakfast at McDonalds.  This afternoon, we had an early birthday celebration for him where we had a small cake and they gave him his presents.  Tomorrow, grandma is going to accompany Andy for at least the first part of his day at pre-school. 

Looking forward to the week ahead, it is back to work tomorrow although it looks like it could be another rather quiet week there.  Between the upcoming holidays and the slowing economy, there aren’t a lot of active projects going on right now, which has kept the stress level and number of work hours somewhat more manageable the past couple weeks.  I don’t really anticipate that changing.  Other big events of the coming week include the appointment to get the crown attached to my dental implant on Tuesday (hopefully the last step of that long process) and Andy’s actual birthday and birthday party next weekend.

The Presidential Debates

I have watched the TV broadcasts of both of the Presidential Debates that have been held during this election and I am left with a strong feeling that I’d still like to see the candidates actually debate.  Both of the events so far have had strict rules and structure that have substantially reduced their value.  The result has been that each has ended up being closer to a series of focused stump speeches.  True discussion and interaction between Senators Obama and McCain has been almost entirely non-existent.

The basic format used in both debates was that each candidate would have 2 minutes to answer any given question, followed by a 60-second discussion period.  Those discussion periods ended up almost always being short follow-up speeches rather than any kind of true back-and-forth between the candidates.  Almost every time, both candidates went over the specified timings, despite the protests of the moderators, but that was almost always due to verbosity rather than any generation of discussion.

The two debates were extremely similar in content, with some of the responses even being pretty much word-for-word the same.  The second debate did have a "town hall" format where voters in the audience asked the questions, but the questions were still pre-selected by the moderator and the audience members were not allowed to follow-up with any other questions or even requests for clarification.  In many cases, the answers weren’t really precise responses to the question being asked and generally they weren’t called on it.

On multiple occasions during each debate, one of the candidates clearly indicated an interest in responding to a point made by the other, but was not allowed by the moderator who instead insisted that it was time to move on to the next topic.  This was particularly frustrating since both candidates spent a lot of time giving alternate characterizations of the other candidate’s positions, but there was never enough back and forth to get to the bottom of what each candidate really would do. 

It obviously isn’t going to happen this year, but I really would like to see a loosely-structured joint interview/discussion with the candidates without such strict rules.  If the candidates start expressing differing takes on each other’s proposals, then I would like to see them continue going back and forth with clarifications and responses until the audience really does have a good idea of what the actual proposal is.  The current format seems to be more about who can present a more convincing obfuscation than it is about truly understanding where anyone stands.

Either of the moderators so far (Jim Lehrer or Tom Brokaw) certainly could conduct a very effective discussion if they were simply allowed to use their journalistic instincts to manage a true discussion.  Both of the moderators (especially Brokaw) actually came off rather poorly in the debates, looking more like strict teachers having to enforce overbearing rules than like journalists.  I honestly have a hard time understanding why well-regarded journalists would even want to be involved in such restrictive events where the ultimate value is fairly limited.

In this day where most people have access to hundreds of TV stations as well as the vast resources of the Internet, debates that seem to be intensely restrictive in time and content seem like a major anachronism.  I think one of the most important steps to bringing more truth and relevance into political campaigns is to better utilize today’s media to truly let the public get to know and understand the differences between the views and proposals of the two candidates.