Archive for December, 2012

A new approach to lane changing

December 20th, 2012

ThinkTech Hawaii

A friend of mine is moving to Oregon. He has many good reasons. When he got there, he wrote a note saying how great things were, trying to make us eat our hearts out. And he said this:

“People (here) are unbelievably nice and polite. Can you believe, they actually stop and let you change lanes when you put on your signal?“

I guess I knew that, I guess we all did. Over time, driving aloha has given way to something else. People do cut in front of you on a regular basis without signaling and, worse, when you signal they don't let you change lanes, making it unnecessarily hard for you.

In the old days everyone let you in as soon as they saw your signal. We’ve lost that. Aloha no longer prevails, and the loss may be unrecapturable. The police won’t fix this - they leave it to us to be courteous to each other. That's not unreasonable.

How does lane changing change the culture? Well if everyone cuts in and out, and they do, just watch the road, any road, and you will see compulsive lane changing all over town.

It has a lot to do with more cars and congestion. People are frustrated that they’re moving so slowly, so they repeatedly change lanes to see if they can go faster. Lots of those lane changes are unproductive. But that’s their call.

These drivers are impatient to get somewhere, even to the other side of the road, often without signaling. The rest of us get annoyed, and that’s one of the reasons why other drivers get fed up and won’t let the lane changers change. And that unforgiving lack of courtesy is the real rub. It's downright mean.

So you signal you want to change lanes, and they ignore you. You look at them to give stink eye or to see the kind of person who does this. They know you signaled, and they know you’re looking at them, but they look straight ahead, fixed on some distant horizon, ignoring your glare and adding insult to injury.

What makes people ignore your signal and then ignore you? It’s takes a smoldering anger they may not even realize. They hide behind expensive tinted windows, making believe they can't see you, isolating themselves from decency for snarled hours every day.

Lane changing culture is the measure of a community, or city. If people are proud and happy about their community, they are happy to let you change lanes. If they are frustrated with their community, they ignore your signal and then your glare.

How to change this culture? For me, I let them in even if they are compulsive lane changers. I turn the other cheek, I never get angry and I never say no. And, above all, I never ignore them. I do this because I want to have a nice day and no accident.

On the other hand, when I signal and another driver lets me in, I wave at him with a big shaka, because I know his courtesy is slowly going extinct and because I want to encourage its revival.

If we all did this, life on Hawaii’s congested roads would be easier on everyone.

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The Kauai junk mail program is a wake-up call

December 12th, 2012

ThinkTech Hawaii

Kauai County has announced a partnership with of Berkeley, California, to stop unwanted mail for people on Kauai. This is all good and the media has picked it up. It limits junk mail, saves on the effort of throwing it out, saves on landfill space and constrains the sale of personal data and identity.

The program, as offered by Catalog Choice, is free and is intended to let participants opt out of mail they don’t want to get, including phone books, catalogs, credit card solicitations and much more. You have to register with Catalog Choice, which contacts the companies that send the mail you don’t want and, on your behalf, asks them to stop sending it.

Kauai is doing this for stated environmental purposes, to save trees and avoid solid waste in the landfill. The web site of the partnership is The main website for Catalog Choice is

Actually, Catalog Choice is not the only one, but it may be the only free one., for example, will “take all the necessary steps to dramatically reduce your junk mail.” It’s the same idea but costs $35 for five years of service. I can’t say which one is better, but I’d rather pay nothing than $35.

You may ask why only Kauai. Isn’t the problem just as pronounced and irritating on the other islands? Well, all the other counties could do the same thing and make the same deal with Catalog Choice and there could be a similar Catalog Choice website for every county. On the other hand, you can go directly to and have exactly the same benefit without going through any government agency.

But the Postal Service has been delivering junk mail like this, and much more, especially around election time, from the beginning. It’s an industry, and many companies are dependent on junk mail marketing. It’s the American way, almost as if they have a right to do that. It’s not clear what happens if they thumb their noses at kindly requests made through Catalog or

In any event, email has changed the way we do snail mail. Sure the Postal Service has been taking in all kinds of junk for years, but (a) the junk mail has increased in volume, weight and offensiveness, and (b) unless they are really lonely, most people don’t really want any of it.

Actually, junk mail is a huge nuisance, just as it is on the net because it gets in the way of real mail, the mail we need to get and want to get. So if we can stop or filter email on the web, certainly we should be able to do that for junk snail mail. This junk snail mail model was undoubtedly inspired by the email phenomenon.

I would guess that the Postal Service loses huge amounts of money on delivering the bulky items for bulk rates and they are probably delighted by the Kauai partnership with Catalog Choice. At the same time, they are under political pressure from marketing organizations to continue the status quo.

But it’s more than just environmental and landfill issues and the convenience of the Postal Service. The idea of limiting junk mail is an idea that’s newsworthy because we all realize that it may be over due. It’s the little guys fighting back.

Junk mail is not only annoying, it’s a huge waste. After the letter carrier delivers it to us, we have to go through it and waste our time. So beyond wasted expense to the Postal Service and in the postal rates we pay, we waste our time picking through it and throwing it away.

And it costs something to haul away all the junk from every house on the block. These costs and burdens are completely unnecessary because we don’t want the junk mail in the first place. It’s an insult not only to the mail system but to the economy. We are all paying for a service we never wanted.

The Constitution only says Congress will establish "a Post Office and Post Roads." It doesn’t create inalienable rights for marketers to flood the postal system with junk mail. Congress or for that matter the Postal Service could and should limit the junk mail by barring it on the opt-out basis or if unsolicited or by imposing more expensive rates and more stringent requirements.

There must be a legal way to filter it out, just as we filter out junk email and spam on every email computer system. Now that we know this can be done for email, if we are to save the postal system we need to do it for snail mail too.

The burden of solving this problem is not just on Kauai, or a well-meaning tech non-profit, it is on the whole country. It’s ultimately a federal problem calling for a federal solution.

Kudos to Kauai and Catalog Choice, but this solution seems so voluntary when limits on junk mail should be mandatory and enforceable. It reminds us of the phenomenon of junk marketing telephone calls, which we all hate to get.

The no-call list program has not been entirely successful, but it was a worthy effort. Now we should also have a no-send list for snail mail and put some teeth in it so there are sanctions on marketers who violate the wishes of their addressees.

If a sender wants to do junk mail, he should be required to respect that no-send list. As the power to proliferate junk robotic telephone calls and bulk junk mail increases with new database technology we really must do something to control it.

If these senders want to communicate with us they can always send email, when thanks to the other end of that technology we can block it.

The Kauai story is a wake up call, waking us up to the fact, if we didn’t already know it, that junk mail gums up the system, that it is a community nuisance, and that it has adverse environmental and economic effects. It’s also a wake up call that we can and should do something about it, whether we deal directly with organizations like Catalog Choice or through local government like Kauai County.

But it’s also a wake up call that a voluntary model like the one used by Catalog Choice may not ultimately do the trick. Once junk mail senders find that there are no meaningful sanctions, they may resume their earlier efforts with new boldness.

While the Kauai story demonstrates the problem, the efficacy of the solution is still in progress. It may ultimately require Congressional action, so this story should be a wake up call for Congress too.

See how technology changes even the traditional things we take for granted. This one-island wake up call is likely to gain attention beyond Hawaii, with positive effects on a growing problem, locally and nationally, that we have hitherto ignored.

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The Christmas shopping race goes to the fleet of foot

December 4th, 2012

ThinkTech Hawaii

Christmas is a time of shopping, that we know so well, and more and more of that is online. But what puts shoppers into their customary feeding frenzy is the prospect of low prices and unbeatable bargains. More than before, those prices are being set by technology.

It’s one thing for a retailer to say we can better the next guy; bring us the best price you can find, and we’ll match it. But computer pricing is taking things way beyond that these days.

We’ve seen this before in air travel. The price you pay is not likely to be the same price the guy next to you paid. You probably don’t want to know what he paid; it would ruin your day.

More and more, retail prices are determined on dynamic factors at a given moment: if you have too much inventory you lower the price; too little and you raise it. If demand is greater, you raise the prices; if demand is less, you lower the prices.

All of that can now happen instantaneously. And consumer software can find you the best price instantaneously too. The whole process is now immediate. The best price on either side of the equation goes to he who is fleet of foot.

Prices on the web change hourly. Merchants watch each other and try to beat each other real time, every hour or every minute, a hundred times a day if you like. The computers don’t mind doing it.

It’s the ultimate free market, and could be great for a smart retailer and a great boon for a smart shopper, as never before. On the converse, the retailer who doesn’t get it can lose big time, and the shopper who is not fleet of foot, who isn’t watching the price wars, can pay multiples more.

We are in a constant state of war on computer pricing, although that is seems to be so more on the web and on the mainland than in Hawaii. Given the success certain retailers are having getting the crowds in the door, what they're learning is likely to proliferate going forward.

Retailers battle to undercut the other guy or force him out of stock. They fight not only to increase sales volume but also to create and improve better franchise as value sellers.

IT companies are writing algorithms that keep track of online and advertised prices, inventory, consumer response and a host of other indicia. All of this converts into sophisticated software that produces dog-eat-dog pricing strategies. Obviously, these change-up algorithms are highly classified secret information for any retailer.

The big retailers have had the advantage of developing this kind of software but they don’t have a lock on it. In the hands of the little guys, it can level the playing field. They can track on what the big guys do and adjust prices too.

Consumers may love this, but it can give them a headache too. They may think they’re getting the best price, but they’re never sure there won’t be a better price ten minutes later. So they have a timing problem too.

Sometimes, a clever seller holds the price steady and then waits for the whites of their eyes and drops his price at a critical market moment to show he’s the go-to guy. People respond to that.

These strategies go beyond anything we’ve seen before. It’s war with high-tech weapons – like computer trading on Wall Street. The manual pricing this country grew up on is over.

But watch out. When a retailer thinks he has the market, he’s likely to push prices back up. Just because you see a price war driving prices down, you can’t be sure that the one that was cheapest won’t raise prices back up any time.

Even with these algorithms, in the end pricing needs human affirmation, the retailer who feels the market intuitively and knows when people will open their wallets. Sometimes it’s trial and error to find the sweet spot. Sure it’s a science, but to some degree it’s still also an art.

However thrilling it may be, shopping in the Holiday Season always has its challenges. One thing to watch is whether price wars for what appear to be the same item are really for the same item. You have to check not only the price, but what you are getting for the price. And you have to make sure that breathtaking discounts are not based on inflated prices.

Yes, this year we venture out into a new web of pricing competition, finding the magic of retail going steroid on the magic of technology. Bless the web for that. Things will never be the same, literally. Is it great to be alive this Christmas, or what?

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