Netflix: A Story of Greed, Apathy & Karma

As longtime Netflix subscribers, we were really miffed to learn earlier this Summer that they’d be dramatically increasing their rates. While we previously paid $9.99 per month for one DVD at a time plus unlimited streaming, the same combination would, effective September 1, 2011, cost $15.98 per month.
greedy businessman
Note that this new pricing included no additional features—in fact, they’ll have less to offer since Starz Entertainment has terminated its deal as a content partner. Netflix claimed the increases were necessary to continue to grow & improve their service. Maybe. After all, the streaming service was initially a freebie but had grown significantly, so the need to shore up the infrastructure could be legit. But the company’s unapologetic, cavalier attitude struck a sour note and many customers were understandably angered, threatening to cancel their subscriptions entirely. Given the company’s withering stock value since—especially plummeting since Sept. 1st—a lot of those rightfully disgruntled customers have followed through with their threats. (In fact, we did too!)

Today, subscribers were treated to a personal message from Reed Hastings, co-founder and CEO of Netflix, with as backhanded an apology as you may have ever heard. He feigned remorse for how they handled the rate hike but still did nothing to earn back customer trust or instill faith in his leadership. He explains that the company is rebranding the DVD mailing portion of their service as “Qwikster” while retaining the “Netflix” brand for streaming only. This divisive maneuver is sure to aggravate customers who’ll have to bounce back & forth between the two sites, never knowing which movies will be available for streaming vs. delivered. Beyond that, this just seems like a feeble effort to distance the now-disgraced Netflix brand name from the price hike debacle. It’s a desperate move by short-sighted, greedy, leaders whose faulty management and slap-in-the-face customer service have just cost them the keys to the kingdom.

Netflix is embedded in TVs, DVD & Blu-ray players, videogame consoles, and well… just about everything but your toaster yet rather than continue to gradually build on the captive audience within that already-installed base, they spurned their loyal fans, got greedy and blew a phenomenal, once-in-a-lifetime market lead. Especially given how flippant the company’s management has been about all of this, it’ll be nothing short of a miracle if they ever fully recover. This is pure, swift consumer karma in action. Make room on the loser’s bench, TiVo & Palm!

Were you a Netflix subscriber before the price increase? Did you stick with ’em or jump ship?

Be sure to check out Seinfeld’s Jason Alexander put a hilarious spin on this situation:

Sunday Sundries

A few assorted links & tidbits to start off the week:

iTunes nixes network rentals

Sadly, there are some things you just can’t get via Netflix (either streaming or disc) so Dede is relieved that we squeaked in Glee: Season 2 just before the hammer fell. According to the ZDNet article Apple Finally Drops TV Rentals From iTunes, Apple quietly pulled the option to rent television episodes from its iTunes online store in the the past few days.

Kick it up a notch with Kickstarter

Kickstarter is an innovative new website that lets would-be entrepreneurs submit a pitch about a project they need help getting off the ground. Via crowd-sourced fundraising, projects have a set amount needed and defined funding levels—most start at very affordable $5, $15, $25 levels—and in addition to helping get the project going, all “investors” (that’s you and me) get a little something extra as a reward for having some faith in the product and/or its creator. And a project must reach its funding goal before time runs out or no money changes hands, which protects both project creators and investors.

So with Kickstarter you can help breathe life into cool ideas like:

World Gone 2 the Dogs

My brother Rich has jumped into the fray with his own World Gone 2 the Dogs blog. Head over there and join the conversations!

Khan Academy – Free online tutorials!

Speaking of Rich, he sent me a link to Khan Academy several weeks ago and I never took the time to check it out. But then just this weekend I read an article in Wired Magazine by longtime fave writer Clive Thompson called How Khan Academy Is Changing the Rules of Education and it really grabbed me. Khan Academy features a library of over 2400 free videos by Sal Khan covering K-12 math, science, finance, history, and many other topics. Each instructional video presents material in easy-to-handle chunks lasting 7-15 minutes. Students can watch videos at their own pace and can even practice math problems online. Be sure to read Clive’s article for more info!

One of the really interesting by-products of Khan Academy and other online video tutorials is that they are enabling teachers to flip the classroom. That is, some teachers are experimenting with the idea of inverting traditional school model, delivering instruction online outside of class and using interactive classroom time for homework.

Planking?

Have you heard about this? We were completely unaware of the concept of planking until our friend Ryan explained it to us last night. You can read all about it here but basically, planking is to lay down (like a plank) in some unusual setting and take a picture to post on the Planking Facebook page. I looked at a few of the pictures and found them amusing. It seems like harmless fun but some do take it to extremes and put themselves in danger to take the photo. Ryan is into a variant called owling instead of planking because as this poster sums it up, planking is just so two months old!

Update:   According to Rich, we’re still behind the curve—planking & owling are out, Batmanning, is in!

Chuck & Beans

A few months ago, I posted about Dave Kellett’s sharp-witted webcomic Sheldon. Well, I’ve discovered another online comic strip that I’ve been itching to share.

The Shoebox division of Hallmark Cards has ramped up their web presence in the past couple of years and they’ve got some hilarious stuff on their Shoebox Blog. Brian’s weekly Chuck & Beans is terrific:

Shoebox Greetings' Chuck and Beans comic strip

And be sure to check out Dan’s Newsdroppings, also on the Shoebox Blog, for a stiff dose of daily news satire. Just don’t be drinking any milk when you click that link!

Accustomed to Violence

There’s been a surge of articles in parenting magazines, blogs, and news coverage about bullying lately. Children are being tormented in America’s schools and online—sometimes to the point of committing suicide. It’s hard to believe that something I had been so totally unaware of is such a huge problem, yet the media has declared bullying to be a national epidemic.
Biff Tannen bullies Marty McFly
There’s some contention about just how severe this has become; some experts insist that bullying is no more prevalent now than it was back when little boys yanked little girls’ pigtails and that the media’s portrayal is unrealistic and excessive, making behaviors that might simply be cruel into something more criminal. Maybe physical bullying has taken a backseat to psychological or emotional bullying, but even if the media has blown this out of proportion, there’s no denying that bullying is a credible and increasing problem.

As a parent, I’m thankful for all of the efforts to shed some light on this problem and I fully support both punishing bullies and helping kids learn to better cope with pressure-filled situations. But maybe we should put forth as much effort looking at some of the root causes. I believe a big contributing factor is how acclimated we’ve become to violence.

Horrific, explicit, oppressive violence is now an accepted part of our everyday lives.

Remember the movie Robocop about a terminally-wounded Detroit cop who returns to the police force as a powerful cyborg? What you may not recall is that the 1987 movie was initially given an X rating by the MPAA due to its graphic violence. Right, the movie was rated “X” not because of explicit sexual content, but for its shockingly-violent imagery. To appease the requirements of the ratings board, writer/director Paul Verhoeven pulled back on the significant blood & gore in 3 scenes so the movie could be released with an “R” rating instead.

Yet compared to what we routinely see on TV, movies, and video games now, the uncut version of that movie is tame by today’s standards. Within a 20 year span, what was shocking and socially repulsive has become acceptable, commonplace entertainment. Movies have become gleefully gruesome and morbidity is now mainstream. Consider the “Saw” series that let us watch as people are brutally murdered in twisted, torturous manners. Compare the likes of a Bruce Lee or Chuck Norris martial arts movie to that of the endless barrage of bloody carnage shown in contemporary movies like “Kill Bill.”

Likewise, TV shows even feature a stunning degree of graphic violence. Procedural cop shows like C.S.I. are far more realistically gruesome than that X-rated version of Robocop. Even when the violence isn’t necessarily visually graphic, there’s still some extremely negative behaviors at play. Consider that toddlers now watch wrestling on TV, which was strictly the guilty pleasure of Dads when we were kids—much to the disapproval of most Moms.

And where playing video games in our teen years meant shooting squiggly blips to make pixelated aliens disappear, now video gamers are immersed in battles where they fire super-realistic weapons at convincingly-real, three-dimensional opponents who yowl in agony when hit, spurt blood, limp, and finally collapse in a nauseating mass on the ground when they’ve sustained too much damage. (Until recently, this is the sort of thing that only soldiers would have to endure—and sometimes suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder as a result.) Other video games reward players for beating up women, stealing cars, pistol-whipping passers-by, and inflicting varying degrees of terrible carnage on, well, anything that moves. According to some estimates, by the time typical American children reach the age of 18, they’ve already seen 200,000 acts of violence and 40,000 murders on some sort of screen.

We’ve allowed our society as a whole to become fully engulfed, acclimated, and accustomed to horrendous, gratuitous violence as a normal component of daily life. Perversely, our society actually savors and glorifies extreme cruelty and destructiveness! And as we’ve become numb and indifferent to negativity and violence, bullying has escalated to epidemic proportions. Surely, that’s no coincidence.

Ikea Pilgrimage

Ever since the dust settled on our move, Dede & I have been wanting a few pieces of furniture to round out our home office and replace some old mismatched stuff from our old house. So, we embarked on what’s quickly becoming one of our favorite road trips (from Odessa to Austin, via Brady) on Easter weekend to do some shopping at our favorite store—Ikea:

Round Rock, Texas Ikea store

We shopped, quite literally, until some of us dropped:

Shopping begins at the Round Rock, Texas Ikea store     Done shopping at the Round Rock, Texas Ikea store

We arrived at Ikea Round Rock near Austin with detailed shopping list in hand, having measured very carefully to ensure that everything we wanted would fit into the always deceptively-cavernous Element. As was the case with our Ikea Frisco trip nearly 5 years ago, we had the car loaded to the gills! (I even removed one of the back seats entirely to free up some extra cargo space!)

Loaded car at the Round Rock, Texas Ikea store

Of course, since nearly everything at Ikea is flat-packed, the adventure has only just begun once you get your haul home! With cordless drill, mallet, glue, and a deep breath, I started assembling stuff…

Here’s a glimpse of the first pieces put into service—our new Malm nightstands, which are hung on the wall with a pair of 18″ Hangman Picture Hanging System brackets, a.k.a. French Cleats (Thanks for that tip, Ryan!):

Ikea Malm nightstands

Watch for more photos of the Ikea furnishings as they come together and are in place!

Cloudy Forecast

Cloud computing is a concept that—if you haven’t already been hearing about—you’re certain to be inundated with in the coming months. Even the U.S. government has dubbed 2011 the “Year of the Cloud.” But there’s another type of computing cloud that’s also been looming on the horizon, building momentum, and is becoming popular even among non-techies: word clouds.

A word cloud (sometimes also referred to as a “text cloud” or “tag cloud”) is a visualization of word frequency in a given text (news articles, blog posts, love letters, whatever) as a weighted list. These graphical representations of words are usually constructed out of individual words (although short phrases can also be incorporated) and often use varying colors, font size or letter weight to emphasize more frequently-used words. A cloud can be free-form, but often the text is used to “draw” relevant shapes, so it’s sort of a hybrid of an informational chart and an eye-catching graphic.

(You can see my first foray into word clouds in my Word Up! post from a couple of years back.)

A couple of months ago, I discovered Hardy Leung’s fantastic new word cloud tool called Tagxedo via one of my favorite blogs, Gerard Vlemming’s The Presurfer.

Tagxedo is a web-based app that turns words—famous speeches, news articles, love letters, your website, whatever—into a visually stunning tag cloud, words individually sized appropriately to highlight the frequencies of occurrence within the body of text. It offers nearly-infinite customization of over a dozen different variables allowing you to create some truly unique & artistic word clouds.

For the best results with this, you’ll most likely need to tinker with the contrast and brightness of your source image. To achieve the desired effect, I punched up the contrast, converted Liam’s photo to greyscale, and applied some filters to make the shading even more sharply-defined. Once in Tagxedo, I found that I got better results with a larger pool of text that I had manually removed some of the really common words from (like “the,” “and,” “or,” and such) but I believe there’s even now a way to configure the app settings to do this for you. So the progression went something like this:

Word cloud image prep progression

So, armed with the cropped and heavily-tweaked version of a recent studio portrait of Liam, the text contents from our Russian Adoption Journal, and Tagxedo, I went to work. Once it had generated a cloud that I was especially pleased with, I saved it and printed the image on a very high-resolution laser printer loaded with high-grade linen paper. I used paper with a very pronounced texture to give the text a bit more character & interest. We mounted the print in a floating frame and hung it in our Den. The end result is, I think, really impressive!

Up close, the grouping of the word cloud text is interesting but it’s a bit tough to visualize the shading and form being suggested by the placement, size, and weight of the text:

Tagxedo word cloud image detailTagxedo word cloud



I urge you to visit Hardy’s Tagxedo blog for some usage tips, the Tagxedo Gallery for some stunning examples of what can be done, and finally, the 101 Ways to Use Tagxedo document for an in-depth tutorial.

I’ve discovered that, in the few weeks since I did our word cloud art project and started drafting this article (a few blog posts got pushed to the backburner in the hustle & bustle of the holidays), Hardy has made loads of additions and refinements to Tagxedo. But be forewarned: Although these updates do simplify and speed up the process, you can still easily fiddle away a few hours playing, tweaking & adjusting. But chances are, your cloudy results will blow you away!

Terrorists, No More

In response to the recent shooting of Congresswoman Giffords in Tucson, Hillary Clinton empathized that America has loony, sometimes dangerous extremists just like nearly every other nation. While I don’t especially care for or agree with her uneven comparison of this lone gunman’s actions with that of militant groups like al-Qaeda, I did like Clinton use of the word “extremists” rather than “terrorists.”

I wonder if, by calling nutjobs (here or abroad) “terrorists,” we’re giving them a certain amount of power? Perhaps we’re tacitly admitting that they’ve accomplished their goal—they’ve instilled terror and disrupted our lives. Are we in some way giving these loonies exactly what they desperately crave?

Biff Tannen photoSo maybe former-President George W. Bush had it right when he called them “evil-doers.” Sure, at the time, I thought it sounded juvenile and had some odd evangelical connotations, but maybe I just failed to understand his rationale. Was Bush just trying to avoid giving terrorists the satisfaction of living up to their label?

Therefore, I’ve decided we should mandate that anytime they’re mentioned in the media—be it print or broadcast—terrorists must be referred to as “buttheads.”
Just imagine the headlines:

     “Buttheads Delay Flights in NYC”

     “Domestic Buttheads On The Rise”

     “Citizens Foil Libyan Butthead Plot”

What better way to trivialize and emasculate these buttheads?

Biff Tannen would approve.

Sheldon

Some time back I posted about a comic strip I had found online and thoroughly enjoy called Pearls Before Swine by Stephan Pastis. Recently I stumbled across another strip that I really like and would like to share.

The webcomic Sheldon by San Diegan Dave Kellett is just terrific! “Sheldon” is filled with pop-culture references and fun, random storylines surrounding an offbeat family consisting of a ten-year-old billionaire boy, his duck Arthur (who learned to talk when Sheldon downloaded some speech-recognition software into his head) and his coffee-loving grandfather who raises them both.

Kellett’s sarcastic sense of humor draws from some of the same pool of genius as does Pastis: Bloom County, The Far Side, and Calvin & Hobbes. I especially like how the Granddad deals with aging, technology, and society on the whole. Take a peek at a few favorites and then go subscribe so you can receive “Sheldon” in your email inbox daily:

Sheldon webcomic - 12/15/01
Sheldon webcomic - 09/27/10
Sheldon webcomic - 11/26/09
Sheldon webcomic - 02/04/10

Metcha Tres

Anniversaries are a way to remember, relive, reflect upon, and fully appreciate again important experiences and events in our lives. And today marks one of those major milestones for us. Words fail to paint the significance of that day, but it was life-altering to say the very least…

On our second day in Moscow, Russia, 3 years ago today, Monday, December 3rd, 2007, Dede & I met Liam for the first time!

We weren’t allowed to post or email photos of him until the adoption was finalized several weeks later, but of course we took lots of pictures on that special day. This is the first time we saw our son, being brought to see us by his kind caretaker, on that frosty morning in Podolsk:

Liam's "Metcha Day" photo

Big congrats to Melissa & Nathan who’re experiencing their own “Metcha Day” today!

Two For Tuesday: Painting Tools

I’ve done a few Tuesday Tool Twofers posts in the past to highlight software or web-based apps that I’ve come to rely upon. But this time, I’m breaking out of the digital realm and showcase a couple of “real” tools that I’ve been using lots lately.

Not long after we moved into Kirkwood Manor, we asked our trusty handyman Truett to replace a few of the old, cruddy interior doors. (The guy is a wizard, literally replacing a door, hardware and all, in less than 30 minutes!) Well, he took it upon himself to do all of them. Right, he swapped out every interior door in the place except for the bi-fold closet doors in our master bath! Now, the new 6-panel doors do look fantastic, and we were very pleasantly surprised to discover that he’d done them all, but it did leave us with one small problem…

Painting all of those newly-hung doors!

Months later, I’m finally getting some traction on that project. Painting is a bit of a chore anyway and the raised panel styling of these doors made that even more tedious a prospect. Add into the mix an eager-to-help 4 yr old, and you can begin to see why I dragged my heels on getting this started for so long. But I splurged on a tool that’s making a huge difference: the Graco Spray Station 2900.

Graco Spray Station HV2900

The Graco is working very well! I do have to thin out the latex paint to get to a viscosity suitable for spraying, and this took a little trial & error to get just right. Otherwise though, I’m very happy with this! It’s an easy-to-use paint spraying system that requires minimal adjustments. And cleanup—the thing I feared the most—is much easier than I had imagined.

So, I’ve got a makeshift assembly-line setup (complete with Dexter-inspired plastic sheeting) in the fenced off carport behind Liam’s room where I’m knocking out the doors 2 or 3 at a time:

spraypainting interior doors

Wooster Painter's CombIn keeping with the painting theme, the 2nd tool that’s become an essential part of my toolkit is a very inexpensive gadget I read about in Family Handyman magazine (a very practical Christmas gift, courtesy of my bro Rich!) called a painter’s comb.

I found mine, a Wooster brand, at Home Depot for about $5 and it makes cleaning out paint brushes a breeze! The stainless steel pins work paint out of the interior of the brush and reshape the bristles after washing so they dry straight & flat. This tool will help you get lots more mileage out of your brushes!

Some painting tips we’ve picked up along the way:

  • Splurge on better brushes. They yield much better results when painting, clean up easier, and hold their shape better if you clean them thoroughly (with a painter’s comb, of course!).
  • If you’re going to leave your brush idle for even 5-10 minutes, toss it in a ziplock baggie and squeeze out as much air as you can. This will help prevent the paint from setting up within the bristles, which makes cleaning all the more difficult.
  • Forget the evil blue masking tape and instead go green! Get some Frog Tape for masking off areas when painting around trim molding, cabinets, etc.
  • You can keep your paint cans clean, dribble-free, and easy to reopen by snapping one of these inexpensive spout stretchers on the inner rim before pouring the paint into a tray or other container. These little gems are only about a buck at nearly any home improvement store and while they call them “disposable,” they’ll last forever with a little care.

Have any tools that you find indispensable? Let us know about ’em! Any painting tips you’d care to share? Please leave a comment!