9/11/2011

09-11-11 - Consumer Choice

Capitalism just doesn't work.

When I went in to buy a washer+dryer a while ago, I told the guy exactly what I wanted : modern efficiency and quiet and good function, but no fancy features, no computers, just a physical knob and hard switches. Nope, sorry, that doesn't exist. Well, fuck, okay, can I try out the ones you have to see which has the least annoying fucking stupid computer? Nope, they're not plugged in. Well, fuck.

We went to buy a little inflatable boat the other day to paddle around the lake. Going in I thought - the main thing I'd like is for it to have a normal Shrader valve (like a car tire or old American bicycle) so that I can use the nice pumps I have instead of the shitty flimsy plastic pumps that they give you. Nope, not one.

How am I supposed to pick the product I want and steer the market when there's not one good choice?

I decided to just bite the bullet and pay Netflix $8 a month just to let me record movies that I'm interested in watching on instant some day.

Of course much worse is that Comcast is fucking me over and by government-regulated monopoly I have no recourse at all. They get to punch me in the face and I have to say "thank you sir can I have another? please don't take my internets away".

In other stupid product news, I've been constantly annoyed that my fucking TV insists on showing "Air/Cable" as an input option when I have nothing plugged in there. I have to toggle inputs between my computer & PS3, and sometimes I accidentally stop on "Air/Cable" , at which point I'm beaten about the ears with brutal static. Fucking god damn it. First of all, you know there's no signal, it fucking says "no signal" right there, maybe you could show me a silent black screen instead of audible static, hmm? okay? Second of all, when there's no fucking signal, maybe you could just disable that input option the same way you disable the other inputs when nothing is plugged in them hmm? Actually the worst case is when the PC and PS3 are both off and I turn on the TV, then it insists on showing me static and I can't change the input source at all. Anyway, the conclusion is that I'm buying an antenna just so I get a signal instead of static. Fucking hell.

32 comments:

Viktor said...

Have you heard about The Venus Project (TVP)? They advocate an alternative to capitalism/communism/fascism. Many people are against TVP because they think it just won't work, however it has never been tried and everyone that says so has only opinions, not facts. TVP has some really strong ideas so I think they're worth at least considering. In short they advocate a society that has outgrown the need for money by advanced production automation and the application of science to social problems.

What do you think?

Viktor said...

In their model you will be able to have whatever washer+dryer you want because you will be able to specify what features you want and have the thing manufactured specifically for you. There will also be ready to use models that you can pick up directly but you will also be able to request something specialized.

Ben Garney said...

Viktor is insane.

Also, I have a TV that does not assault me with static, so on that one at least you might be able to find some relief. You're probably screwed on the others.

Viktor said...

@Ben Garney

Oh and why is that?
You are also insane. I don't know anything about you but I'm just sayin' :D

jfb said...

Charles, this isn't as much about capitalism as how the retailers optimize.

For instance, the question, "Why is it so hard to find salsa in hot, but easy in mild"?

People looking for mild salsa will not buy hot salsa. If no hot salsa is available, people looking for it pretty likely *will* buy mild or at least medium. Same with chunky peanut butter, bread that actually crunches, etc...

If they cut one out, they find they lose little in sales (and can buy what remains in higher bulk). They find they cannot cut out the other. They only lose customers if another store isn't optimizing in this way, say if they had a weighting that valued variety, etc. But that's pretty rare.

So, they'll only notice when you find an entirely different store that does it differently and you never come back.

What you're objecting to is hill climbing, then. :) How would you do global search for consumer preference?

cbloom said...

"Charles, this isn't as much about capitalism as how the retailers optimize.
...
What you're objecting to is hill climbing, then. :) How would you do global search for consumer preference?"

No no, the problem is not the optimization strategy at all. The problem is the optimization *criteria*. They're optimizing for more sales, not for better products.

There's sort of a popular myth of capitalism that competition means that producers will make the products that consumers want, because if one producer doesn't make it, you can go to the other producer and buy it, so you will steer the market towards what you want, and over time products will get better.

That's not quite true. There are a variety of problems :

1. If the product you want just isn't made, you can't steer the market. This is often the case with me. (generally the product does in fact exist but is too hard to find - in theory a system where all products were well indexed on the internet would improve this greatly)

2. A product you can sell a lot of after advertising is not necessarily the same as what consumers want. What producers want is to maximize net after advertising; we should all know from games that often that means an inferior game that they believe has a better "hook" to make it work well in advertising will get more budget and get pushed.

3. Consumers are fickle and retarded. They buy things in the store that aren't actually what would make them happier; they buy things that look fancy or have features or whatever. This isn't retailers fault, they're just catering to the consumers' stupidity, but it does punish those of us who are more sensible.

4. Intentional concealment of information by retailers and producers. For example, retailers that don't hook up their appliances to power because they know that letting consumers fiddle with the controls can basically only lose them sales. Nobody will say "okay I won't buy it because I can't fiddle with it" but some people like me would say "I won't buy it because these controls are really annoying". Of course the basic construction quality of many things has gone to shit and they do their best to conceal that; for example all that horrible bulky fancy-looking kitchen gear is usually cheap chinese steel that you can actually snap with your hands, and has very poor metal to plastic joints that will come loose. But it's expensive and looks fancy so in the store you might think it's good quality. Try buying any type of fan or air filter and find out what the noise level is at various air flow amounts (the common trick here is to publish the noise level at minimum speed and the air flow at maximum speed).

Aaron said...

Supposedly with Comcast you can call them and demand to get their promotional rate every time it expires. Requires some work, but should cut down the cost.

With TV, you should have a logitech harmony remote. You won't ever even think about the concept of 'input buttons' again. It solves all that shit. One button press and you are doing what you want.

For kitchen stuff, somewhere in the city there are appliance stores that cater to wealthy people. I imagine if you go there you'll probably find what you want. It'll be a Jenn-Air or Wolf or something and like 1/10th as reliable as the computer driven mass market rubbish, but at least you'll be able to find a nice analog dial. For washer/dryers, you want to go find a commercial one to get around the computerized bullshit. It's probably not worth it though for a W/D.

cbloom said...

"Supposedly with Comcast you can call them and demand to get their promotional rate every time it expires. Requires some work, but should cut down the cost."

So far as I can tell they only offer promotions for package deals, and I want internet only.

"With TV, you should have a logitech harmony remote. You won't ever even think about the concept of 'input buttons' again. It solves all that shit. One button press and you are doing what you want."

Eh, I don't really see how that works, I'd still have to go into some "Activities" menu and pick something. It's just moving the selection somewhere else. And it adds yet another device for me to have to fiddle with and get annoyed about. On the plus side, it could replace the rubbish PS3 controller for interfacing Netflix which would be a huge win.

I also imagine setting up the Harmony to work with my HTPC would be a nightmare that would cause much gray hairs and potential for device smashing.

"For kitchen stuff, somewhere in the city there are appliance stores that cater to wealthy people. I imagine if you go there you'll probably find what you want. It'll be a Jenn-Air or Wolf or something and like 1/10th as reliable as ..."

or Viking or Miele. So far as I can tell that stuff just exists for suburban house-wives to waste money on so they can brag about their fancy kitchen shit. I do like their aesthetics and human interface a lot better, but I'm not paying $1000 more for the same shit just because it's snobbier.

HPO (hated previous owner) had a random mix of super-shitty-cheapo Kenmore stuff and some Asko stuff. Ooo, it's swedish, it's expensive, it looks visually simple and attractive, it's small, it fucking sucks, the Asko stuff is all broken or noisy or just doesn't work well.

Viktor said...

@cbloom
"They're optimizing for more sales, not for better products."

It seems that every market works that way, inefficient but manages to satisfy most people and most people are seem to be enough.

I wonder what will happen if people start to request fully customizable products. The ones that are on the shelves now are ok, but I want to be able to make customizations to a model that I choose is closest to what I want. Fine grained control. They already have the factory that builds these things, all they have to do is to give some control over the manufacturing process of their product.

Of course this is possible now if you know the right people and give them the right amount of money, but it's not worth it, that's a cheap workaround for a technical problem that can be solved en masse.

And I bet at least five dollars that once people get a taste of what it's like having stuff customized for their exact wants there will be no going back. :)

cbloom said...

"On the plus side, it could replace the rubbish PS3 controller for interfacing Netflix which would be a huge win."

Or I could just get a Roku which is the same price as a Harmony.

I see lots of forum threads like this :

http://arstechnica.com/civis/viewtopic.php?f=6&t=78191

Ah yes, making life better by turning it into endless frustrating fiddling with consumer electronics. Makes me want to smash it all to bits and read a book.

(I'm sorry computer & TV, I didn't mean it, I love you)

Viktor said...

@cbloom
I completely agree that the internet is the correct place to keep a data base about everything.

Consumer demand must come from the actual people saying "I want this", not by indirect market studies and whatever else they are doing right now. The best way to know what someone wants is to ask them. If they don't know what they want, provide sensible default options.

Aaron said...

Heheh, all I know is I've got a Harmony and every time I go to someone's house who doesn't have one it's like stepping back to the stone age. I don't just pick up the remote (LCD automatically lights up when I pick it up), and press 'TV'?

The Harmony remote, while not perfect, really is the MacGuyver element of home theater. It brings it all together. Beware though, the PS3 is bluetooth batshit insane, so to get a harmony (or any universal remote) to totally work with it you gotta buy a 50 dollar adapter that will send the stupid bluetooth to the stupid ps3 :)

Aaron said...

"Or I could just get a Roku which is the same price as a Harmony."

Then you'd have to use the Roku remote, a horrible little thing (lol, it even has like a little fabric clothing tag sticking out of it that says 'roku', shudder, and you're paying for something you already have (though the roku would be silent). More importantly though, there are much better things than a roku (HD TV live, seagate theater+, etc that can pull data over the network or off a USB drive). Every device connected to my tv can do netflix... it's ridiculous (XBox, PS3, Seagate Theater+, PC).

One button to turn everything on and one button to turn it all off. It's really really great. You know you want it. Got Amazon a Harmony One. You can return it if you don't like it.

Almost all those Harmony issues are fixable. Generally TVs switching inputs are the worst (though really that's a shitty way to live, you should have a receiver that everything goes through and never ever change tv inputs).

nothings said...

What the hell is so great about one button to turn everything on and to turn everything off, anyway?

Considering how long it takes my projector, my 360, and my stereo to turn on, I spend far more time waiting for the display to come up then I do pushing power buttons.

The only thing that sucks is having to wait for the projector to power all the way before changing its input. But I can't imagine it being worth futzing with yet another device just to save that.

Plus also I have four devices with RCA audio output feeding into a manual mux with pushbuttons that feeds the stereo's TV input. I doubt the Harmony is magically going to fix that.

Anyway, my one proir attempt at using a universal remote was a pretty terrible experience. Pro-Harmony people sound pod-people-ish.

nothings said...

Whoops, forgot to quote this bit specifically...

(though really that's a shitty way to live, you should have a receiver that everything goes through and never ever change tv inputs).

So, in addition to buying a Harmony, I should do the research necessary to find a good, appropriately featured stereo receiver to replace my existing one?

And of course this would be totally shitty. At one side of my room I have a screen for my projector. The 5.1 speakers are arrayed around it appropriately. The center speaker is directly under it. The stereo receiver lives on that side of the room so that the speaker cables don't have to be too long--but there's no room for a general "AV center" there.

The projector lives on the opposite side of the room, on the top of a set of shelves which contain all the various AV units: PS3, 360, mostly-unused-DVD player, PS2, japanese PS2, something else I've forgotten. They all have audio cables that run across to the other side of the room, but they route their video outputs directly to the projector--one HDMI, one DVI, one S-VIDEO, and the rest into the aforementioned manual switcher.

So now I have to replace my stereo receiver with one that has HDMI inputs, run all HDMI and other video cables across the room to the receiver, then one HDMI cable back to the projector?

Yeah, no, I don't think so.

(Maybe you meant one needs to do this only if one has a shitty TV without direct input selection buttons, but that's not what you said.)

Aaron said...

"The stereo receiver lives on that side of the room so that the speaker cables don't have to be too long"

You've got those elevated up off the floor at just the right height too, yeah? I kid I kid :)

I mean mostly that stereo input switching will always work better than some random tv implementation. I personally route all my inputs through the TV because my receiver won't do HDMI at all. Seems like there's gotta be a ir-driven hdmi switcher out there somewhere...

Not sure about the Harmony One but my 880 has IR on both the front and the back, so it magically hits devices on both sides of the room.

Nothing the harmony will do will solve the 'manual switch' button :)

The great thing about one button on is... I press one button, and go get some popcorn while the electronics all do their thing, rather than burning calories hand-cranking my input selector and making sure the coolant levels are just right and meticulously arranging the 7 remotes needed for all that stuff. And when I'm done the one button off is even better... when I'm burned out and the movie is over. I press the button, dust off the popcorn crumbs, and go to bed :)

I definitely won't say a harmony is perfect. It takes a couple hours to set it up initially. Their software is pretty shitty. Once in a while it'll miss an input, and if you go screw with the equipment manually it'll throw the harmony off (though there are nice ways to cover that). I still think it's worth every penny and every second spent.

Granted, this is probably overkill for Charles; original problem of 'I get static sometimes if I hit the wrong input'.

cbloom said...

I got an HDTV antenna. Holy crap TV is horrible! It's been years since I've seen a commercial, they're shocking.

Aaron said...

Yeah home entertainment is all about buying the defense mechanisms to protect yourself from the bullshit.

If you have TV, you have to have a Tivo to avoid the commercials and watch only what is good. TV is just insanely absurdly expensive, it's far beyond rational to have cable television service at all (though though I do, for live sports, and recognize it as a massively illogical decision).

If you have a home entertainment center, you have to have the Harmony to protect you from the godawful proliferation of remotes and every manufacturer's horrible interface choices.

jfb said...

Viktor, if you pay enough you can get just about anything custom. It's not a workaround - there are (large) development costs to significant changes. "The factory that builds these things" has tooling costs, and these aren't going to go away. You make these up by selling a ton of roughly the same thing to a lot of people.

jfb said...

"If the product you want just isn't made, you can't steer the market."

This is what I mean by local optimization. You look at what you *are* making (manufacturer)/selling (retailer) and use it to determine what *to* make/sell.

For what it's worth, if you think enough people *do* want what you are proposing for a particular product, there's a market opportunity there you're welcome to take/hire someone else to take... If it's just you, well :)

cbloom said...

jfb, we do keep hearing stories about "agile manufacturing" and customized products and so on, but the reality of it has yet to appear.

cbloom said...

I suppose it exists in terms of producing runs of 1000 instead of runs of 100,000 , but it's not down to producing runs of 1.

jfb said...

Well, I suppose 3D printers, home CNC machines, etc. exist and are becoming cheaper mostly thanks to computers doing likewise.

Still, you'd really need a pick and place, some sort of automated scheme for downloading and programming firmware, etc. and even then would need to stock quite a lot of little parts, resistors, op amps, processors, blah blah blah, all of which are much cheaper in bulk.

And even then this will be more expensive than mass production. I don't see a way to stamp something for one-offs...

jfb said...

So I will admit computerization makes it easier to have smaller scale production. But smaller scale does mean much more expensive.

Thatcher Ulrich said...

I bought a Harmony; I hate it and don't use it. It's big, ugly, confusing, and invariably gets out of sync with some device and I would have to study the thing to figure out how to get back in sync.

Roku is the shit. The remote has like five buttons, the box is tiny but has all the ports you want, the UI is super easy and nice.

I really like my Frigidaire washer & dryer. There's a little bit of knob and a little bit of electronics but it's very easy to use.

I'm a Wolf/JennAir/Miele ho. You have to use Consumer Reports though to figure out which models aren't lemons.

cbloom said...

"This is what I mean by local optimization. You look at what you *are* making (manufacturer)/selling (retailer) and use it to determine what *to* make/sell."

Okay, true enough. One thing that boggles my mind is that when manufacturers massively change a product, they don't leave the old version on sale for a while to see if people actually like the change.

Aaron said...

I imagine there's a fair bit of money to be made in product marketing. Most of it is pretty ridiculously primitive still. Like: "if we give you a few choices, you'll buy more stuff". Woo. It's one of those fields that one one wants to work on though. For a while I've been trying to wring a decent answer out of a buddy of mine who used to work for T-Mobile in product design about why no one just puts a minimal cell phone into a more or less existing compact digital camera. Surely the cell phoney bits don't take up any space (it's all battery and screen, which a camera already has). Never got a satisfying answer though. The closest I got was that the camera might not pass drop-tests that are required for phones, but there are plenty of rugged cameras out there that aren't that expensive (especially compared to the un-subsidized cost of a cell phone).

Witnessing the game design process I can kinda see how it can happen. We all play games (a lot). But then we start trying to guess what the 'market wants', and how to beat our competitors, and there is very little actual wiggle room in game design, and big risks can fail completely, and everyone ends up confused and flailing around... then they panic and do some user testing and really confuse the shit out of themselves. There's almost no real cold scientific market analysis, planning, and execution of design that I've seen. It's all this organic process, wrapped inside soul-crushing meetings and design (obfuscation) documents.

Physical product design probably has it even worse, they seem to contract out a lot of their design to someone not even working on the product, so it's like a game of telephone to get anything done (including a negotiation with some factory in china who will constantly tell you they can't make what you're asking for anyway [one of the secrets of apple success is an iron fist on their supply chain: they can literally make things that no one else can because of it]). It's a miracle any of what we buy works at all.

Aaron said...

"one one wants" = "no one wants"

brian said...

Capitalism works the same way Mencken said Democracy does: "Democracy is the theory that the people know what they want and deserve to get it good and hard."

I think a lot of behavioral economics is pretty fluffy, as a science, but there's also a lot of truth, there, too. And it pretty solidly spoils the naive idea that capitalism leads to market optimization in any useful way. I mean, that notion of optimization relies on a moderately consistent function that isn't itself a function of the market.

http://youarenotsosmart.com/

Nike's doing pretty well on the agile manufacturing kick but they've sunk tons of money into it and from the customer side it just means you can pick the colors on your shoes. But it does let them do tiny runs of very custom shoes for custom trends (they're doing one custom for the Born To Run barefoot-running store here in Seattle) and stay ahead of trends. Tons of A/B testing that way, leaving things in the market when new stuff comes out.

It's going to be hard for the rest of the world to follow suit. It'll be piecemeal. Maybe someone starts a company doing just agile manufacturing of control surfaces and makes a standard for it and gets some appliance manufacturers to sign up and you can pay another $250 for your washer & dryer and design your own controls. But $250 sounds cheap enough they'd go out of business but expensive enough nobody would do it anyway, and how do you get the manufacturers to sign up and &c.

Even if that worked, that one example is like a hundred very talented people working for years.

Life.

cbloom said...

"Roku Launches Just Announced Amazon Prime Instant Video Service"

Looks like Roku is the shit.

Aaron said...

As are these devices

Viktor said...

Just FYI. http://www.gizmag.com/factory-dna-for-assembly-lines/20367/

Fuck capitalism/socialism/crapalism...
Technology and science is the way.

old rants