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Posts filed under 'Why we can't have nice things'

  • Amazon is terrible

    Something rotten

    A while back, I got some new network hardware (a NAS and router, specifically) and decided that instead of paying extortionate prices for CAT6 cables, I'd get the tools to do it myself—after all, they'd pay for themselves after about five cables, and I could start reaching for my dream of having a completely clutter-free desktop (i.e. no loose cables dangling). After some time doing research, I realized exactly how tight the specification is and opted to throw in my Amazon shopping cart a specialty crimper and cable ends that purported to make the process of crafting cables much easier.

    Several days later, all my boxes had arrived, and it was time to start wiring things up. I sat down with a tutorial on my screen and my tools in front of me, and started making some test connections. For some reason, I couldn't get the cables to work, and after some inspection I could see that the wire "teeth" that are meant to cut through the insulation and into the wire weren't getting pushed in all the way. I figured, the most likely scenario here is that I'm not using the tool right or the CAT6 spec is even trickier than I thought, but after a half dozen more attempts I still couldn't get a working connection. At this point, I decided to look closer at the manufacturer's website, and realized I'd been duped.

    The tool itself seemed to be correct, but the box of ends (that cost probably 5x as much, each, as a normal CAT5e termination) were … wrong. The molded plastic and one-time locking piece didn't look like they were supposed to. "Sometimes that happens," I told myself, "when manufacturers tweak things. Maybe I just have an older version or something."

    Nope. Amazon had sent me a fraudulent part.

    This became a bit of an obsession over the next few weeks. I fired off a bad review (with pictures to prove it), notified the manufacturer, told everyone who would listen that Amazon aren't to be trusted, and so on. Eventually, I stumbled on a tweet (linked from HackerNews) that discussed why this happened.

    Long story short: Amazon has a program called "fulfilled by amazon" that sellers generally like because it allows someone else to manage their inventory and online listings (i.e. Amazon), customers like it because it means more products can be fulfilled in a single shipment (from an Amazon warehouse, instead of some rando 3rd party), and Amazon likes it because they get more of a cut from each sale.

    However, Amazon generally trusts/has trusted sellers to provide them with authentic goods. When they get an item that claims to match some SKU, they toss it in (I imagine) a big bin of crap, and then when someone orders from any vendor claiming to sell that particular FBA product, the pickers grab one at random and toss it in your box.

    As a vendor, you hate this, because when you supply real merchandise but your customers receive fake merchandise, you take the reputation and restocking hit. (It should, of course, be obvious that customers generally hate receiving cheaper goods than they paid for.)

    The poison goes deeper

    Meanwhile, articles were being published. Over the past three or four years, we've all read about how Amazon mistreats their warehouse workers, how Amazon mistreats their delivery drivers, how Amazon mistreats their corporate employees…

    Turnover in all divisions is huge. There are reports of people in corporate crying at their desks every day, of warehouse workers being promoted to manager after six months because of attrition, of people not lasting a week in delivery roles. Everyone in New York hates LaserShip (who, I gather, are a third-party delivery service that contracts mostly to Amazon) because they're lazy and unreliable1.

    So why do we use Amazon? Are we heartless? ("No," we tell ourselves, "but why pay more?") Well, you can find anything, right?

    … not exactly. Have you ever tried finding all items of a category on Amazon? Let's say you're looking for a class of products—in my case, Network Attached Storage drives, by one of a small number of companies, with certain features—and want to comparison shop. Admittedly, it's gotten better, but it's still not good, because here are your hurdles:

    • You do a search, and Amazon thinks it's narrowed down to the product category. You are still seeing some things that don't apply, so you drill down.
    • Now, you see mostly the right product, but not just the brands you want to comparison shop. So you check off those filters.
    • Now you're seeing mostly what you're looking for, but a recent model you know exists isn't showing up.
    • Further, you want to find a specific product in a particular price range, so you sort low to high. However, the first ten pages are filled with accessories that are either appropriate to your product class (RAM, cables) or completely wrong and simply associated with your search for what you can only assume is a result of sellers keyword spamming.
    • You re-do the search with more specific terms to try to surface the product you know exists, but now you're not seeing another product that came up during your previous search.
    • Worst yet, on some searches variations on a single product show up in the item itself (e.g. pant sizes/colors), whereas others show up as completely different items, swamping out meaningful search results with page after page of noise.

    And so on, and so on.

    One solution is to window shop at the manufacturer's website. But now you're endlessly cross-referencing searches and reviews anyway, so what service is Amazon providing in this situation? Sure, it's the "world's largest store" (or whatever their motto is), but I'll be damned if I can ever find anything.

    Meanwhile, I get so exhausted by the search itself that when I'm trying to build up a big enough order to hit the free shipping mark, I often discover that I've overlooked some important detail of what I've ordered. On average over the past ten years, half the stuff I've received from Amazon has been inadequate to the task I purchased it for. Maybe the windup is too much for me—I spend five days or a week expecting something that will solve my current problem, whereas if I made the same mistake with a brick-and-mortar store it'd only be a half hour until I discovered my mistake—but all too often, I find that whatever arrives is not at all the size, or quality, or even product, I expect.

    Maybe when I go to the store, I see fewer goods overall. Maybe I pay more. Maybe I would have been happier with something different, that I never learned about. But at this point, the only things I buy there are products that have been surfaced somewhere else (a blog, or a twitter post) that I literally cannot find anywhere else.

    Amazon isn't good at surfacing products I'd like to know about, and their failings and abuses mean that I am now going out of my way to never give them money whenever possible.

    Final anecdote

    There's one final story I'd like to throw out to round this out.

    My brother lives on the opposite coast, and I know his hobbies well enough to know that I could never get him anything he wants and doesn't already have. So, because I accumulate credit card rewards points, I just redeemed them for an Amazon gift card (as none of my other options are relevant to his interests. Olive Garden? Home Depot? Nope.)

    In return, he ordered me three items related to a conversation we'd had, and relevant to our mutual interests. They were set for delivery on the day we returned from the midwest, so I hoped that they would, as usual, be located in our lobby when we arrived.

    One box was there, and I had two "Sorry we missed you!" notifications.

    No problem, I'll just swing by the UPS Store and the Post Office during the course of my normal errands!

    After over an hour out, dealing with the cold and the ice and the crowds at those two locations, I had all three of my packages. Opening them, I looked at one and said "how am I supposed to use this?" I went back and forth with my brother, looked online a bit, and realized he'd accidentally purchased me a replacement part for the thing he meant to order, and that it was useless on its own.

    I went online, setup the return (paying $6.50 for the shipping label), made another trip to the UPS store, paid for an envelope, and waited a week for the funds to appear in my account before I could order the right part.

    At the end of the day, my brother tried to do something nice for me, and Amazon turned it into two hours of work and two more hours of confusion and frustration.

    Thanks for everything, Amazon.

    1. This may, of course, be a consequence of Amazon paying so little for shipping; LaserShip might not have the flexibility to provide better service because they have to try to eke out a profit margin. 

  • Diversity of Choice

    On Black Friday two years ago, my now wife and I were at Target when we spotted a coffee burr grinder for much less than I expected. I had shopped for them in the past, and the "recommended" one was over $100, whereas the one we were seeing came in much cheaper—somewhere in the neighborhood of $30.

    Now, I didn't expect much out of it, except for it to be a bit more reliable than the cheap bladed coffee/spice grinder I had picked up in 2009. We tossed it in the cart, and bought it along with the rest of our stuff. (Black Friday is seriously a good time to pick up household goods, because while everyone else is looking at cheap TVs you have full run of the entire store.)

    We've been using it mostly without incident over the past two years. I say mostly, because I had to order a new hopper after a bit of plastic broke off bottom, where the stationary cutting face is screwed into the plastic. I tossed the broken chunk and the loose screw, and used it for the week it took the replacement part to come in.

    Well, in the past month, the grinder began to shut itself off a couple seconds into each cycle. I can't decide what causes this, and the manual isn't much help: the only non-idiot troubleshooting step is that maybe the thermal fuse is tripping, which I could believe based on our non-standard duty cycle (we typically grind enough coffee for the week all in one go) or the location we store the grinder (right above the radiator, which is always super-hot as is the norm for Manhattan). After unplugging it for a couple hours at a time between grinds, the behavior persisted, albeit inconsistently.

    So what? I knew the grinder was cheap, and I'm no dummy—when an American company sells me an appliance for $30, I understand that part of that bargain is that it uses the cheapest possible parts in the cheapest possible configuration. Still, we had gotten two+ years out of the thing, which works out to an amortized cost of probably $0.25 per pound of ground coffee—not bad, considering that ~fresh ground coffee is often cheaper, and certainly more delicious (and contains fewer bug parts) than pre-ground.

    I figured, though, that I could save some money by opening the grinder up and looking for simple faults. I wasn't going to commit more than an hour to this endeavor, as the value of the grinder is so low, and I'm not about to spend more fixing something than it's worth. So, tools in hand, I dug into the internals, and got to see just how the thing was constructed.

    Spoilers: it's cheap, and the general idea can be understood by a clever high school student. There is a board that controls the switching for the motor, a number of safeties that stop power if e.g. the hopper is out of place, and a small mechanical control wired up to a ~pot to control grind time. Everything else is physical structure meant to keep all this stuff in the right place, and there are none of the space-saving measures or plastic tabs that make working on consumer electronics so frustrating most of the time.

    Well, for better or worse, I couldn't repair it in the hour I allotted (and actually left it worse off than before—the motor no longer engages at all). I suspect the thermal fuse is permanently tripped, or half-tripped, and the motor assembly's construction—as a collection of parts connected as cheaply as possible—means that it would be tremendously difficult to find it and … do anything. I may keep it around as a hobby project for later, when I want to kill an afternoon, but as it turns out there's another reason for me to keep it around.

    Have you heard of white label goods? Basically, they're products that are produced on spec by factories, and then other companies come in and either add to them or simply package them up and sell them. White labels have become more popular thanks to Ali(baba/express) and drop shipping, but they have a long history.

    As an example, back in the day I used to perform a lot of hard drive surgeries, for myself or as favors to others who were migrating computers or afraid of data loss. I wanted a very particular set of features: external power (because some USB ports didn't offer enough power to drive all hard drives), SATA inside, Firewire ports, and a metal case.

    There was exactly one product that fit the bill. But that's not true, because there were actually three or four that fit the bill, but they were all sold by different US companies, but it was clear that ignoring labels and boxes these were all the same product. So I just bought from the one company that seemed the most reputable, and was happy.

    The thing about white label goods is that they don't only appear in consumer purchases. I had a cheap Acer monitor start misbehaving, and it was clear upon opening it up that the problem was actually a power board (supplied by, I believe, Westinghouse) with some victims of the capacitor plague on it. It wasn't a good enough monitor to justify sourcing the parts for repair, but I could have easily opened up just about any other flat panel monitor of approximately the same vintage and found an equivalent board inside.

    For commodity electronics, as for software, it often doesn't make sense to engineer your own solution when someone else has made a part that does 90% of what you need for a fraction of the price (specialization and economies of scale, yo). So while I understand the motivation to source parts like this, it's still weird to think that there are probably "good" monitors out there that use the same crappy PSU as commodity products that cost 1/4 the price.

    Anyway, back to the grinder. Mr. Coffee (the maker of the first grinder) is owned by Jarden, which is a subsidiary of Newell Rubbermaid (now Newell Brands). The grinder that I was eyeballing to replace it is Amazon's best seller, available wherever disposable appliances are sold, made by Cuisinart (owned by Conair). Anyone who's read this far will be able to guess at the punchline, and at why I mentioned the parent companies of each brand.

    When I got my new grinder home, I noticed that it felt familiar. Well, it turns out that the internals—the wiring, the position of the safety switches, the size of the coffee chutes, the grinding face—are all exactly the same between the Mr. Coffee and the Cuisinart.

    … So, I guess I'm going to keep the Mr. Coffee around for parts.

    There is no real consumer choice.

  • Buggin'

    One of those things… I assumed Wordpress was a mature platform, and it is, but there's a bunch of weird interactions between, for instance, Markdown and post by email. In this case, the post I wrote last night cut off early, and it took me a second to figure out why, but I think I know.

    There's an old standard for signature lines that dates back to Usenet and the early days of email. A signature would be demarcated by "– ", that is, two dashes and a space on a line by themselves. Wordpress is supposed to prune off email signatures… but.

    Markdown uses multiple dashes on a line by themselves as a horizontal separator.

    Google, I think, trims excess whitespace.

    Can you guess where this is going?

    I used post by email once a couple weeks ago, and my email signature got attached to the blogpost. I used post by email last night, and everything below my first horizontal separator got pruned. lol what?

    Tumblr has issues, but their markdown and post by email were about all I could ask for—simple, clean, error-free. Wordpress is … leaving a lot to be desired.

  • A strange Mail.app bug

    To begin, it helps to understand that things get under my skin easily. I was running Word 2004 on a recent Intel Mac, and spent two hours toggling options and configuring my environment to try to get rid of a 50 ms lag in characters appearing on screen. (I never was able to, and ended up using Word 2010 on a PC to do that piece of work.) I argued with a guy for three hours about the use of a particular piece of iconography and the role of consistency in UI design, because a visual confusion was causing me thirty seconds of inconvenience per day.

    So basically, I'm an asshole (to many of you) or particular ("OCD") about a couple things, which can be roughly boiled down to "responsiveness" and "flow". I'll upgrade my phone to reduce typing lag, I won't use a device that's too old if fast tasks aren't fast—app switching, typing, mouse input—and I hate chrome, animation, and interfaces that reduce application interaction speed. This leads into flow: if a button isn't clear after using it five times, or I mis-hit a menu because my understanding of an app is different from the designers' intent, I get increasingly frustrated. Adobe Reader using the Windows XP file dialog for saving/opening files (as opposed to the Windows 7 version) is one of my pet peeves. Thus, the main reason I prefer OS X is that there are so few exceptions: Apple's "update or get left behind" dictum to software developers is, in my mind, a virtue, because when everything is up-to-date everything behaves predictably and I can flow more easily.

  • Tumblr usability nightmare

    Did you know that the stupid damn button in the bottom left isn't actually a button, it's a "menu-button" ? Meaning, that you have to click it to select its mode, and then fucking click it to execute… WTF ARE YOU DOING, TUMBLR? WHERE THE HELL IS THE POST I SPENT THE PAST HALF HOUR DRAFTING?

    Yahoo!, and UI fails, can go diaf.

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