Well, that solves one mystery of the universe

I’m not sure when I first heard of Craigslist. I think it was sometime this year. It’s probably the biggest up-and-coming website there is, and while it’s a way of life for some (people have used it to sell everything they own, including their house, then move to a new city, find a new place to live, a new job, and new stuff to fill it) a large number of people have never seen or heard of it.

What I’ve always wondered is how what amounts to a free classified ad board makes money.It turns out it makes its money from the job postings. Prospective employers have to pay for their ads. The rest of us get to freeload. And I do; I’ve sold stuff there, and I’ve bought stuff there. I’ve placed wanted ads, and I’ve bought stuff there that I knew I could resell for a profit elsewhere.

A lot of people don’t like the site because it’s basically all text with virtually no graphic design. Other people like it for just that reason. Personally, its minimalist design doesn’t bother me at all. It’s a free ad service, it’s easy enough for me to find stuff on it, and enough people use it to make it worthwhile to look there and post there. What more could you want?

Supposedly, the up-and-coming Google Base is going to take aim at Craigslist. Others think it’s an Ebay killer. We’ll see. Based on the few vague descriptions that are out there, it’s not clear to me exactly what it’s intended to do yet.

Personally, I’d rather see Ebay get some real competition. Amazon and Yahoo have launched auction sites, but no one comes. People list at those venues basically as an afterthought. I’ve picked up some bargains both places, but it’s rare enough that anything I’m interested in turns up there that it’s been months since I’ve looked either place.

Ebay is big and successful and you can find almost anything there, but it’s almost too big and too successful. Its fees are high, and if you use Paypal, you essentially pay the fees twice. What we’re seeing is the classic monopoly problem: The company is so dominant, the only way for it to gain revenue is by raising its fees, so it raises its fees every year. The people who make their living on the service protest, but there isn’t much they can do about it; packing up and going elsewhere won’t work because there’s nowhere else to go. So they work harder.

Competition would be good for everyone. It would force Ebay to lower its fees and find other ways to improve its experience, and maybe the competing product will be better too. Imagine what the auto industry would be like if GM didn’t have Ford and Toyota around to keep it honest.

What about Craigslist? Well, if it goes by the wayside, it was fun while it lasted. But I suspect it, too, will adapt.

Can Google compete with Paypal?

There are reports in the news today that Google may launch a Paypal-like service. Most are questioning whether Google can compete with Paypal, which boasts 72 million users.

I believe the answer is yes.Here’s why. I buy a lot of stuff on Ebay. Lately I’ve been selling too, and since the initial effort was reasonably successful, I’m going to start listing more things.

I’ll be listing for the same reason lots of people do. It’s funny how much stuff becomes redundant once you get married and your spouse moves in, and it’s cheaper than having a garage sale and you’ll usually get better prices. And, besides, for the past six weeks or so I’ve been a bit shorter on cash than I’d like to be.

Online payment systems work because a lot of people don’t want to mess with checks. It’s a pain to write a check and it’s a pain to cash one, and nobody likes waiting the 7-10 days it takes for one to clear. Money orders and cashier’s checks eliminate the waiting period, but they’re a pain for the buyer, who has to go visit the bank during working hours and pay a couple of dollars, or you have to visit the ATM and then find a convenience store that sells money orders, and pay a couple of dollars. It wastes a lot of time. And if you’re buying a $100 item, you probably don’t care about the couple of dollars, but you sure do if you’re paying for a $2 item.

The reason 72 million people use Paypal is because it’s better than dealing with checks or money orders. But it doesn’t take much.

Read through some Ebay listings though, and you’ll find lots of people who don’t take Paypal. The reasons vary, but the people who don’t like Paypal really don’t like it. Those people tout Western Union or Bidpay as alternatives, but those in reality are just an online venue to buy a money order. It saves you hopping in the car. Again, on an item whose price requires three or more digits, you probably don’t care. But they’re horrible for small transactions.

Since Paypal is so widely used but so widely disliked, there’s lots of room for a competitor.

From what I can tell, sellers of merchandise don’t like Paypal because it’s free for the buyer, but big-time sellers take a hit. (People like me who sell casually don’t.) The hit seems to vary, but resellers seem to like to tack 60 cents onto the cost of the transaction when I use it. I generally pay it, since 60 cents is a lot less than it would cost for me to use another online payment service or to buy a money order, and it’s not much more than it would cost me to mail a check.

So it seems to me that there are at least two ways for Google to compete. I’m sure they’ve done some market research on what people dislike about Paypal and they’ve looked into what they can do to provide better service. Obviously one approach they could take would be to simply charge less money.

A second possibility would be for Google to endear itself to the seller by placing the financial burden on the buyer. Charge the buyer, say, a percentage of the transaction cost, with a maximum cap of somewhere around the cost of a postage stamp. Sellers would gladly accept it if it didn’t cost them anything. Buyers won’t like it as much as Paypal since it’s not free for them, but it would give the instant gratification of Paypal while costing about as much as mailing a check. And besides, it’s the seller who sets the terms of the transaction. If the buyer doesn’t like it, the only choice is to not bid.

I believe that sellers who don’t accept Paypal are putting themselves in the same position as a brick-and-mortar store that doesn’t accept credit cards, and sometimes I’ve gotten some real bargains precisely because the seller only accepted money orders, but that doesn’t stop a lot of them.

So I don’t believe Paypal is a juggernaut. It was the first widely successful online payment service. But this field doesn’t give much credit for being first. Just ask Datapoint (inventor of what became the x86 family of processors), Commodore (first successful consumer-level computer to feature pre-emptive multitasking), Digital Research (first popular operating system for microcomputers), or any number of now-defunct pioneers.

I’m not willing to place any bets on whether Google will become the market leader in this arena, especially without having seen their service. But I also don’t think there’s much question as to whether it will survive and/or be profitable. As dissatisfied as the users of other services are, Google Wallet would have to be awfully bad to flop.

Whatever happened to… online politeness?

Very early in my BBSing days (1989 or so), I was talking to the operator of one of the first BBSs I called. He said he instantly bans anyone who engages in "flame wars."

I didn’t know what a flame war was, though I found out pretty fast. And they’re just as much a problem today as they were back then. Maybe more, since people can talk any time and they don’t have to wait for the BBS line to get un-busy.Gatermann and I were talking about how rude people can be online. It’s frustrating to me–probably the most frustrating thing about the ‘net. But that human contact is the best thing about the ‘net, so of course I always come back, no matter how torqued off I get.

But I think that’s the problem: Human contact. The computer dehumanizes it.

I first noticed myself dehumanizing when I was meeting girls on eharmony.com two summers ago. The girls outnumber the guys there, so if you’re a guy, unless you’ve really narrowed your focus, you’re going to get a lot of matches. It felt kind of like playing Alter Ego or another early game that tried to simulate human contact. I’d say something and try to see what they sent back. And it was at the point that I got to see one girl’s picture that it suddenly dawned on me that there was a human being sitting on the other side of that keyboard and monitor.

I don’t think some people grasp the concept of talking through a machine versus talking to a machine.

Of course, some people may just hide behind it. They can’t see the look of hurt on the other person’s face, and the other person can’t reach across the table and smack them when they have it coming, so they act like trolls and get away with it. Maybe they even relish it.

The most blatant example I’ve seen is a guy who swoops in on most of the train boards once a month or so. He’s a millionaire in Washington, D.C. (he’s a trash-hauling magnate, from what I understand), and supposedly has a train collection and layout that must be seen to believe. I’m told that in person he’s a great guy, and supposedly just about anyone can come into his house and see his layout just by asking.

But online, he’s a monster. He swoops in, says rude things, watches the volcano erupt as the people who disagree with him start screaming, and then the people who agree with him start screaming, and mostly just sits back and enjoys watching people bicker and throw temper tantrums.

That’s my worst experience, mostly because I stay out of chat rooms, except for a Yahoo chat room that meets on Saturday nights and talks about repairing Marx trains. The start of the whole conversation was Gatermann telling me about someone he knows signing onto a chat room. She got to talking to some guy she didn’t know from Adam, and almost immediately demanded to see pictures. And I’m not talking the kind of pictures you show to your mother.

Maybe some people enjoy being Dr. Jeckyl in person and Mr. Hyde as soon as they sign on to the Internet. Maybe some just can’t get the idea in their head that they’re talking to a human being, since they’re not hearing a human voice and they’re not seeing facial expressions.

Anymore, I try not to say anything online that I wouldn’t say in person to someone I expect to see again. And the funny thing is, that actually keeps me out of trouble most of the time.

To take care of the rest of the time, there are certain things that I just try to avoid talking about.

Are blogs credible?

OK, so 60%+ of Americans don’t trust blogs. Do I need to do a Gomer Pyle imitation?

Blogs are media. People generally don’t trust the media either.Ten years ago, which was a time when the Web had about 12 pages on it and almost all of them were personal pages, I was in journalism school and if there was one point the introductory and history classes tried to hammer home, it was that freedom of the press is in danger. Today, a majority of students, when presented with the exact wording of the First Amendment, believe it goes too far.

There’s an old saying that freedom of the press is for those who own one. To a degree, that presented a large barrier of entry. One can safely assume that it will cost more than a million dollars to start a magazine, and that’s been true for a very long time. Newspaper startup costs will be much higher.

But somehow that hasn’t stopped quacks from getting into print. Some quacks are very wealthy. They can buy media outright, and less-wealthy quacks can just buy some space in a newspaper and pontificate all they want about whatever bothers them and act like a syndicated columnist–some even include their picture–and the only way you would know is by the word “ADVERTISEMENT” plastered across the top and the bottom of the editorial.

In contrast, some people will give you a blog for free, and that lowers the cost of entry even further. Now all it takes is some rudimentary computer skills and the willingness to sit down and write. And if people agree with you and link to you, you might even gain some prominence.

Does that make them credible? No. But do the words “of the [insert newspaper name here] staff” give you credibility? It shouldn’t. Journalism is not a licensed profession like engineering or law or medicine. If I can convince someone to hire me and pay me to write, I’m a journalist. The same goes for you. There are just two barriers of entry: People who can string words together intelligently are much more rare than they should be, and the pay stinks. If your goal is to keep a dry roof over your head and drive a car that isn’t falling apart, you’re better off persuing a career as a garbage man. But if you’re willing to live with pay that makes schoolteachers look like aristocrats, there isn’t much keeping you from being a journalist.

The low pay is one reason I’m suspicious of a lot of journalists. To put up with that lifestyle, you pretty much have to have a hidden agenda.

So do I trust blogs? Generally, no. But don’t feel bad. Generally speaking I’m suspicious of television news and newspapers and magazines and other online news services too.

Credibility is earned. I know some people trust me. I know some other people think I’m a quack who blogs because no sane person would pay me to write anything. And that’s fine–in some cases the feeling is more than mutual.

So what to do about those big, bad blogs that have no credibility? Censoring speech is always bad. The solution to speech that needs censorship is more speech. So the answer to bad blogs is more blogs. The best of the best will rise to the top, and quacks always find a way to eventually self destruct.

Punishing the curious for something that should have never happened

I saw a story on the news tonight about more than 100 students who won’t be getting into MBA programs. Why? When they applied to a number of prestigous universities, a posting on a bulletin board claimed to let them view their records and see if they were admitted or not.

It didn’t work for all of them. But those who tried to peek are being punished.My question is why is this information on the public Internet to begin with? This is precisely what intranets are for: You put sensitive information on a web server behind a firewall. Then you define one or more computers who can see it. The rest of the world can’t access it, because the rest of the world doesn’t know it exists. But those who are authorized to see it can see it, through the convenience of a web browser.

Leaving this kind of information on a web server that’s open to the public via the plain old Internet is akin to keeping student records, finals, and other sensitive information at the campus library. If it’s out where someone can see that it’s there–or might suspect it’s there–then someone’s going to look. It shouldn’t be there in the first place. I had professors who never kept tests in their office because some student at some point in time had broken in, hoping to get a preview of the final.

Punishing applicants for typing in a link that they figured wouldn’t work anyway accomplishes little or nothing, except to say that some of the nation’s finest universities have given no thought whatsoever to their computer security and network design.

I hope their graduates are smarter than the people who run the place. But that’s probably a given.

Moral Dilemma

I saw the following in one of my Backup Exec failure logs (directory names changed slightly to protect the client’s name, and me):

Directory F:\ITWEB\Flash Stuff\Welcome Page Animations was not found, or could not be accessed.
None of the files or subdirectories contained within will be backed up.

Hmm. Flash animations.I’m torn. My duty to the client who is paying me, of course, is to fix the problem so the file is backed up.

But they’re blinky, annoying Flash animations. Flash, of course, is the third worst thing to ever happen to the Internet, behind popups and spam. OK, it’s the fourth worst thing. I’ll put it behind spam. But I’ll even put it ahead of Microsoft Internet Exploiter.

So an opportunity to snuff out some blinky Flash animations that have been foisted on the world is a great temptation.

Or am I the only one who feels this way about Flash?

Incidentally, I turn off animated GIFs too–I find a Web without animated GIFs and Flash is a much more pleasant place. I don’t know if that makes me boring and extremist or what.

Terms of use for this site (Or: Deep-link me, please)

So, more companies are attempting to prohibit so-called deep linking, which is where you can’t link to stories themselves, but rather, you have to link to the front page and the poor reader has to try to find the story you’re thinking about.

So let it be known that you can link to anything on this site you darn well please. Not only do I allow it, I like it.As far as search engines are concerned, front pages are worthless. Either they have meaningless PR or marketing fluff on them, or they change all the time.

You shouldn’t have to tell people how wonderful you are. How wonderful you are should be evident from your site’s content. Let the reader read, decide for him/herself how wonderful you are and whether to come back.

So, I don’t care if you deep-link. I don’t care if you print out a copy of an entry on this site for personal use. You can’t republish it or sell it (those are the rights I retain) but if you want to put a copy of something I wrote in your 3-ring binder of useful stuff, then frankly, I’m flattered. Don’t put the text on your website–link. Advertising on this site generates a small amount of money that pays to keep it running and what’s left will allow me to pay off my Honda about a week sooner than I would have otherwise. So don’t steal my pennies.

But deep-linking to a story here that you found useful is as good as giving me pennies. This is something a lot of corporate lawyers don’t seem to realize.

I also don’t care how or when you read it. If you want to translate it through Google or Babelfish into your native language so you can enjoy it more, go ahead. Just don’t blame me when the computer butchers your native language once or twice per paragraph. If you want to read it in the bathroom or sitting under a tree or anywhere else, fine. Just please don’t read it in your car while you’re driving. Yes, I’m being greedy again. If you get into an accident and wind up in the hospital, then you’re not reading my site, so I don’t get any pennies. The guy in the car you crashed into isn’t reading my site either, so I don’t get any pennies. The only people who benefit from you reading my site in your car while driving are slimy insurance companies. I don’t like insurance companies, so please don’t read my site in the car while driving.

So those are my terms of use. I hope you find them less onerous than those of companies like Orbitz, who seem to want to tell you how to run your life.

That’s fine if they do that. Nobody’s forcing anybody to visit. They can have their onerous terms, then whither and die. Sites that respect your basic rights–like this one, hopefully–will continue long after those others have withered away.

The power of the blog

Brian Schkerke: [P]ower [is] granted to those who are in power only through the masses’ acquiescence…I’ve read a lot of criticism of blogs through the years, including from people who are bloggers and just don’t want to admit it. And just this week, on a discussion board, when someone asked if anyone knew of any good blogs on a particular subject matter, someone came on and said he avoids all blogs at all costs because reading about all of the personal details of people’s lives is a cure for insomnia.

This is in contrast to the discussions on that board, which sometimes put you to sleep but more often cause your blood pressure to skyrocket–unless watching aristocrats argue and actually mean it is your thing.

Every time you lower the barrier of entry, a lot of junk whooshes in. But something worthwhile will as well. Some blogs are changing the world, some are for entertainment purposes only, and others operate in specialized niches.

Accountability is always a good thing, and blogs provide it, both for each other and for bigger, more traditional media, as well as for the bigger world that the media covers.

I’ll stay in my niches. I played the political pundit game in college and ultimately found it just wasn’t for me, so I wound up “No Left Turns” and closed up that shop for good when they handed me a diploma and pushed me out the door.

Am I a blog fan? I wouldn’t say that. But I will say I always enjoy a good web site. Some of those happen to be run by large media conglomerates, and some happen to be run by someone with a laptop wearning pajamas.

And as for when I do laundry and what I eat for breakfast… That’s for me to know, OK?

Fascination with old technology

I found this New York Times story on retro technology today. I have my own take on retro gaming.

My girlfriend tells me the 1980s are terribly hip with her students. As she was grading papers last night, I noticed one student had doodled Pac-Man on a paper, the way I remember my classmates and I doing in 1982.

I dig it.I was feeling nostalgic in the summer of 1996 when I started visiting old 8-bit oriented newsgroups on Usenet. Someone wrote in with a question about an Atari power supply, and I happened to have a Jameco catalog in my hands that was advertising some old surplus Atari boxes.

That led to me meeting Drew “Atari” Fuehring, who along with his brother had accumulated one of the largest collection of retro video game consoles in Missouri. Atari 2600, 5200, 7800; Vectrex; Colecovision; Intellivision–you name it, they had it, and if they didn’t have every cartridge and accessory that came with each, they had more than 75 percent of it.

I did a feature story on them for the Sunday magazine of the newspaper I was working at the time. It was easily the most enjoyable story I did during my time at that paper. Maybe the most enjoyable story I ever did.

I didn’t take up video game collecting, but obviously I never forgot that article. (I’d link to it but the database seems to be down forever.)

Those of us in our 20s (I’ve still got 3 1/2 months left of my 20s) grew up around technology. We’ve watched it grow up with us. So why does it seem so odd for us to think of older technology as something other than inferior? Isn’t that like saying that once you’ve heard rock ‘n’ roll, you have to give up jazz and blues?

In some regards the old stuff’s better. Hold up that original fake wood-grained Atari 2600 alongside my GPX-branded DVD player. Hold both of them up and then ask any person which of those two things originally cost more money. Even if they don’t have a clue what the two objects are, they’ll know.

There was a time when things were built to last and they weren’t rendered obsolete in two years or six months just to force us to buy more stuff.

Take the guy in the article who bought a 15-year-old Motorola cell phone. I’m sure some people think he’s nuts. The new phones have all the functions of a Palm Pilot in them, and you can play video games on them (funny, they’re old video games–I hold out hope that the people who make these gadgets have some clue) and you can take pictures with them and you can program them to play annoying songs when people call you, and I think some of them even do septuble duty as an MP3 player. But have you ever tried to talk on the phone with one? Or worse yet, talk with someone who’s talking on one? They’re terrible! They cut out all the time and the conversation sounds robotic, so everyone talks really loud trying to make up for the terrible quality–and succeed only in annoying everyone around them–and if you drive under a bridge, forget it. You’ll lose the connection.

I remember all the promises of digital. I’ll tell you what was so great about digital: It allowed the phone companies to cram a lot more conversations into a much narrower frequency range. It saved them a buttload of money, and we get the benefit of… ever-smaller, costlier phones that are easier to lose, along with an endless upgrade cycle. Trust me, next year the annoying salespeople in the mall will be asking you if you can watch movies on your cellphone, because you can on this year’s model.

Eugene Auh says he bought the phone to impress girls. Maybe he did, but he’ll keep the phone because it works.

I spend my day surrounded by technology and by the time I manage to get home, I really want to get away from it. My sister asked me a few months ago where my sudden fascination with trains came from. I think that’s exactly it. The first time I saw a train with onboard electronics that ran by remote control it really wowed me, but I’m constantly drawn to the old stuff. The older the better. I have a lot of respect for the 1950s units that my dad played with, but for me, the holy grail is an Ives train made between 1924 and 1928. In 1924, Ives came up with a technological marvel: a train that could not only reverse when the power was cycled, but added a neutral position to keep the train from slamming itself into reverse and doing a Casey Jones maneuver, and could keep the headlight lit at all times.

Trust me, it was a big deal in 1924.

Besides that, those oldies were built to be played with hard and built to last. And they were built to look good. Remember that picture I posted this weekend? That’s nothing. The electric units were gorgeous, with bright, enameled paints and brass trim and the works.

Why should I settle for a hunk of plastic made by someone who gets paid a dollar an hour whose electronics are going to fry in a year, rendering the thing motionless?

Nope. I like old stuff.

Next time I’m at a flea market and I see a Betamax VCR, I might just buy it.