odd marketing model
Saturday, February 20 1999
Today I'd made plans to go buy some much-needed computer equipment, and since I don't have a car, this necessitated Kim's involvement. First, though, we took Sophie for a little walk around Ocean Beach. We passed this one place where some young children had gone crazy with coloured chalk, writing all kinds of traffic signs and signals on the sidewalk. Every slight vertical misalignment in the sidewalk's concrete surface was indicated with "Slow Down Bump" signs, like a warning to the many skateboarders of Ocean Beach.
The place where I wanted to go to do my computer shopping is called "Fry's Electronics." I've heard this place mentioned before by co-workers trying to explain where the company used to be before being moved to its present Mission Valley location. It's been used as a landmark, spoken of as a place "you have to go to," and recommended by a Staples employee as the place that "might have that" when Staples didn't. So I decided to figure out where it was using the phone book. Surprisingly, it wasn't even listed in the Yellow pages, and its single-line entry in the white pages was in the smallest print possible. I was beginning to wonder if all this hype was some kind of joke. I had to call Fry's to get driving directions since the address in the white pages placed it on a street that evidently didn't exist when my map of San Diego was published.
But as we headed north up I-15, Fry's was impossible to miss. It was a huge building, bigger than some Walmarts, with a badly-futuristic metal arch over the door. It was a spectacle unto itself. As big as it was, advertising of any kind was absolutely unnecessary. Everyone in San Diego had to know about it.
As we approached the Fry's parking lot, Kim noted an increase in incidents of road rage in the lanes around us. Evidently Fry's is largely patronized by gadget-obsessed type-A personalities. She kept muttering about the "Schteves" and their needlessly aggressive driving.
As we were walking into Fry's, it re-occurred to me that the whole electronics revolution was actually a triumph of photographic and printing technologies. The operative elements of all consumer electronics these days are microminiature printouts on silicon paper. It's cheap because, once the prototype and the process are perfected, to make more is really not much different from printing magazines. This place was where the gadget-obsessed come to pick up copies of the latest silicon printouts.
Of course, I'm no stranger to being gadget-obsessed. I've always had a fondness for small man-made objects with the capacity to act independently. I remember when I was four and took my Dad's pocket watch apart, naïvely confident I could somehow put it back together and it would be better and more capable than the way I'd found it. I don't really remember the outcome of that story except that the watch never worked again. Back to my point: I'm actually different from these type-A gadget-obsessed Schteves. I'm weird about my gadget obsession. It has very little to do with the widespread male desire to flaunt one's techno-status; for me it's more about getting to a situation where's there's no barrier between my ideas and the implementation of them. That's why I love the Web so much. There's practically no barrier between my ideas and my audience.
I was still stoned from a morning wake-and-bake, and let me just say that Fry's was every bit as impressive on the inside as it was on the outside. And, on this busy shoppers' Saturday, it was crowded with joyous Schteves and their bored girlfriends. We were looking for a telephone Y adapter, and not quite finding the right section. Suddenly, though, we rounded a corner and found racks and racks of permutations on the device we needed.
I was primarily in the market for a cheap scanner, and soon found myself amongst long low unlabeled shelves of boxed scanners. Perplexed, stoned and curious, we asked an employee where to get a better look at the scanners and he told us we were in the "overstock" section. I guess that sort of made him into a kind of Lord of Overstock. I didn't know there were overstock sections.
I soon discovered that SCSI scanners are a dying breed, and most of the new models available are USB and parallel port models, both of which aren't the best kind for me. Price ranges varied from $49.95 all the way into the multiple-thousands. Since my scanner would be entirely for web work, I could settle on a cheap one. So I ended up with the $50 model, the Mag Innoscan DT-3050. It unfortunately comes with a parallel interface.
Another device I bought was a PCMCIA card reader that fits into a desktop PC just like a floppy drive. It was a bitch of a device to track down; I had to go through three eschelons of customer service before I had the thing in my hot little hands.
As I was excitedly rushing about feeling a bit like a Schteve myself, I also felt kind of sorry for Kim, since this particular stop on our shopping outing must have been a terrible bore for her. But she's the one with the car and she doesn't like for me to go on errands alone if she has the time to come along.
While it's apparent that Fry's Electronics has figured out the interesting fact that sheer size markets itself, they've also opened up the inside of their store to niches for other retailers who want to benefit from the sheer volume of customers. For example, as we approached the cattle-chute-like check-out section, we wound through a maze of strategically-placed candy aisles. And directly in front of each cashier was a little plastic display case with an obscure product being promoted. In front of our cashier was a display of dehydrated food diverted in a commercial spin-off from the space program. Believe it or not, if you freeze-dry a slice of pizza, it ends up about the size of a PCMCIA card and weighs practically nothing.
Since we were already on a shopping spree, Kim wanted to stop at Bed, Bath and Beyond, the house-dressing superstore in which our roles would suddenly be reversed: she'd be the one running around in wide-eyed delight and I'd be just wanting to go. Unlike Kim at Fry's Electronics, though, I didn't come into the store with her. I stayed out in the car listening to the radio and looking at the packaging for my new toys.
By this point in the day, Kim and I had decided to eat lunch and then go see a movie at the nearby Mission Center Mall. Not surprisingly, Kim wanted to eat in the absolutely fanciest place in the mall, an upscale Southwest-style restaurant that sat as an undigested high-brow enterprise on the edge of the mall proper. I had a portebello mushroom sandwich as a first attempt to start putting less meat through my system.
In the massive AMC movie theatre, we watched the new movie Office Space, about which I'd read a good review in Salon. It's the first live-action movie by Matt Judge, the brilliant mind behind Beavis and Butthead, King of the Hill and Beavis and Butthead Do America. Office Space was definitely a movie I could relate to, since it was principally a satirical look at the life of a white-collar employee in the information age. Our hero works as a programmer at a bank software company, spending his days fixing Y2K "challenges" and suffering humiliation after smarmy humiliation at the hands of his detail-obsessed supervisor. But our protagonist hates his job, frequently suffering from cases of what the office sycophants term "the Mondays." He has a dreary new-age girlfriend but entertains a crush on the cute girl who works at the TGI-Fridays-esque restaurant nearby. This girl has her own issues with her job, not wanting to wear any more than the minimum "pieces of flair" (buttons and other goo-gaw stuck to her uniform), though of course her boss is always giving her lectures about how sad it is "to get by with only doing the minimum." It's a lecture I've heard in my workplace; I'm sure we all have. But the essential truth here is that we do all want to get by with doing the minimum; after all, management wants to get by with only paying us the minimum.
Our hero lives in an apartment complex so shoddy that he can have conversations through the wall with his redneck neighbor. The relationship between our hero and his neighbor is almost exactly like the way my relationship with Josh Furr used to be, right down to details such as the neighbor's insistance that our hero watch a certain channel to see an especially "hot chick," who, it turns out, is simply a model for a breast exam technique designed to detect cancerous tumours.
Out hero's girlfriend drags him to a hypno-therapist in a last-ditch attempt to bring some energy back into their relationship. But when the therapist drops dead in the middle of the session, our hero is strangely transformed. He ditches his girlfriend, asks out the cute girl at the restaurant, and starts ignoring his job. When expected to "go ahead and come in on Saturday," he sleeps in late instead and does nothing all day. (On an almost visceral level, I could particularly relate to this instance of defiance!). Even during the work week he blows into the office just any old time, and then just cleans fish or plays Tetris like the gloriously defiant eight-year-old we all wish we could be if only we had a million dollars.
A pair of "efficiency experts" interview our hero and see his independent nature as refreshing. So they have him promoted to middle-management while sacking his hard working buddies.
It's a movie that gets at the heart of what people would do if they could do anything instead of simply being slaves to a system they can't really change. The movie's shining glories, though, were the many ways it satirized the ridiculously routine office deceptions and manipulations, the same kind that are used on me and my co-workers every day as though we're really idiots unqualified for our positions.
If you've ever worked in a cubicle or think you ever will, go see Office Space. You owe it to yourself, or, actually, your boss owes it to you. Sneak out and see the matinee.
All afternoon, while Kim was at work at Victoria Rose, I struggled with computer equipment. I worked solidly from 3pm until 11pm. Yet my results were nowhere near satisfactory. The scanner installed okay, but something about the driver installation wiped out something crucial for Adobe Photoshop. So now I have a scanner but no Photoshop. I'm left to edit graphics with the Mickey Mouse software that came with a $50 scanner. As you might imagine, I'm not happy about this, but I can't fix the problem until I go find myself a Photoshop installation disk.
The only reason I'm not furious with the scanner situation is that the PCMCIA card reader caused about ten times more suffering and wasted time than this. For one thing, the scanner documentation was rudimentary and a very poor translation from Chinese. Here are some excerpts (all sic):
Integration is the watchword for today's computer. Welcome to the PCMCIA Card Drive, the most powerful reader and writer by stimulating development in the business market.
The series of PCMCIA Card Drives have Plug 'n Play and Hot Swap features for user friendly technology. They are also highly performance of PC Card readers and writers. With PCMCIA Card Drive, all the things you do now will be easier and faster, and what you've always wanted to do is now possible.
-isn't that a little overstated?-
This PCMCIA Card Drive provides the user with the most reality in supporting many PCMCIA configurations. Users will not have frustration and time consume problems using their PC Cards.
-this damn thing gave me so many time consume problems that I think I'm a long way from "most reality."
The PCMCIA Card Drive is the most classical method to add PCMCIA functionality to the desktop.
-how about floppy swapping? (Which works, at least)-
I managed to get the card reader and its drivers all installed, but my system absolutely refused to identify my camera's PCMCIA card (or, for that matter, Kim's modem card). I went to Antec's website to find a solution, but there was none. They advised turning off the secondary IDE bus, and I tried that, but it was no use. And besides, I need that secondary IDE bus! A card reader that can't read my cards is absolutely useless. I'm taking it back to Fry's.
This experience, and many others like it, has led me to wonder how most Americans are ever going to "get computerized" and "get wired." If they can't make even the most simple of changes to their equipment without experiencing at least as much suffering as I did (remember, I'm a professional!), it's difficult to see computers being especially useful for them. Certainly, it's difficult to see how the benefits from a computer installation could ever pay for the money it demands when it's time to be maintained or altered.
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