Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Northanger Abbey

One of the side-effects of having my GPS stolen out of my car is that I had occasion to dust off the MP3 player that I used to play audiobooks in my car before I acquired my Garmin. One of the audiobooks loaded on that player is a reading of Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey (Read by Elizabeth Klett.) I've mentioned this audiobook here several years ago but it seems worth revisiting.

Northanger Abbey was one of the first books Jane Austen wrote and one of the last to see print. Miss Austen sold the rights to Northanger Abbey to a London publisher for £10 very early in her career but it was never published while she lived. After her death her brother (and literary agent) Henry Austin bought it back from the publisher for the same ten pounds they had paid his sister many years before. The publisher was apparently unaware that Miss Austen was, by then, the anonymous authoress of four very popular novels. Northanger Abbey was finally published the year after Miss Austen's death.

It is Austen's most overtly comedic book and is the book where we most clearly hear her voice as author. In her later, more mature, works she stands back and speaks only through her characters, but in this early, somewhat self-indulgent book she is very much a presence, commenting wittily on her ingenuous heroine, on the virtues and uses of novels, and on the literary scene as a whole. The prose is much more playful than in her later work and parts of it are laugh-out-loud funny. Here's a bit where our heroine, Catherine, is greeted by her friend, Mrs. Allen, who is something of an air-head:
Catherine found Mrs. Allen just returned from all the busy idleness of the morning, and was immediately greeted with, "Well, my dear, here you are," a truth which she had no greater inclination than power to dispute...

Elizabeth Klett's reading of the book is very nearly perfect. Her intonations are spot on and she does a very good job of giving each character a subtly distinctive voice that helps the listener sort out who is who in long multi-way conversations. She reads at a good pace and never stumbles over any of the peculiar phrases or odd word orderings that sound strange to modern ears and tend to trip up other readers. Her Northanger Abbey gives testament to just how good a volunteer-produced, public-domain audiobook can be.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Hurricane Irene

Update See below:

For those of you who are not local to the Research Triangle area in North Carolina and have been wondering about our experiences with Hurricane Irene, I have a few photos of the aftermath here in the Triangle. For the most part, in Cary Hurricane Irene gave us a fairly breezy rainy day. For those of us who secretly look forward to hurricanes it was a bit of a letdown. But it was not without some effects:

A tree branch fell on my car...

And a home in our neighborhood was blown off its foundations...

Fortunately, I have seen the affected homeowners this morning and they are already at work rebuilding after yesterday's storm.

Update: 30 August 2011

It's been a funny week. I posted this joke about a tree limb falling and the next day we had a thunderstorm come through and about an hour after the storm was over the tree I was writing about dropped about a ton of broken wood and wet leaves at the end of our driveway. The teleospouse and I had gone out for a late supper when our next door neighbor called to say a big branch had fallen but missed the car. I didn't get any photos of the branch where it fell because we had to saw it up and move it last night so we could get the cars out this morning. Here's where the branch broke off:

the break by bigleehimself
the break, a photo by bigleehimself on Flickr.

Now that the branch it gone it is easy to see the bit of yellow insulation that hung up in the tree when a tornado destroyed a Lowe's Home Improvement store this past spring and spread bits of debris over the whole county. It's about 25 feet off the ground and well beyond the reach of my ladder so it will be there for a while.

I wish I had gotten better shots of the pile-o-wood but I only had a minute to snap a shot or two on my way out the door to go to work. Here's the wife bundling up some of the leafy bits for the yard waste pickup. This pile she is standing behind is about 1/3 of the cut up branch.

irene cuts up by bigleehimself
irene cuts up, a photo by bigleehimself on Flickr.

The tree in question, by the way, is a Bradford Pear. A Bradford Pear is a very poorly engineered tree -- after it is about eight years old it will have grown more heavy foliage that its relatively fragile wood can support. They are famous for falling apart in the wind or an ice storm. They are one of the things I offer as proof of the existence of God; a poorly engineered tree requires a spotty engineer. The obvious mistakes in the way the tree was made seem to require a creator having an off day.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

BestPricePhoto: A Review

It has been pointed out to me by readers who have come to my blog looking for something in particular, that I tend to ramble. For any such no-nonsense readers who have come to this page looking for specific information about and my experiences with them, I have color-coded this posting. Notice the background color of this paragraph. To skip the fluffy bits just hit the old scroll wheel and only read the stuff that is this color. Or, you can just read the Jack Web Version (Just the facts, Ma'am).

Still with me? I call that blue-gray color dodofo. Dodofo is my made-up Japanese word for the color with the RGB hexidecimal code #D0D0F0. But I digress; I had intended to start my review with some observations on nuclear weapons and Dave Letterman's jokes. Sorry. I'll try to stay on track.

Letterman and the Bomb:

The fusion reaction in a hydrogen bomb is really hard to trigger. It needs a more-traditional atomic-fission bomb just to set it off. Similarly, David Letterman has only one joke and it never fails -- he has made a career of that one joke -- but it needs another joke to set it off. It works like this: Dave stands in front of the camera and tells a cheesy joke. For a second nothing happens, Dave grins. Then the audience starts to think about Dave telling that stupid joke to millions of people on national TV. Half the insomniacs in the US have tuned in to hear Dave tell that dopey joke. It's absurd that he would offload such a dud on a highly-rated show. Absurd and funny. The audience laughs. It works. Every. Time. Brilliant!

Gabora, image borrowed by bigleehimself on Flickr.

"Gabora the Gorilla Girl"

I mention Dave's ever-funny joke to get you in the mood to understand why Gabora, the Gorilla Girl has always been my favorite sideshow on the midway. To see Gabora costs each rube a couple of bucks. The audience stands around in a scruffy tent waiting for the show to start, then the Emcee (who doubles as ticket-taker) puts a rope across the entrance, closes the tent flap, steps to the front and goes into his spiel. He tells about Gabora who is from [some geographically unlikely part of] Africa and who escaped [from something bad -- witch doctor, mad scientist, something like that] and who, because of her experiences there, will turn into a gorilla if hypnotized.

The curtain opens and we see a bored-looking girl, in a rabbit-skin bikini, standing in an alcove behind heavy iron bars. The Emcee goes into his hypnotic cadence "Think 'gorilla,' Gabora! Gorilla! Gorilla! Gorilla!" and sure enough, as the light goes down on one side of the dusty half-silvered mirror and comes up on the other, Gabora is transformed. Actually, since the guy in the gorilla suit behind the mirror is never quite on his mark she is not merely transformed, but translated as well, the gorilla being several inches to the right or left of her reflection.

Once the back-stage rheostat has been turned all the way and the transformation is complete, the gorilla beats his chest, runs forward, grabs the handle on the mirror to slide it out of the way (with a sound like a sliding glass door), runs forward to the bars and pushes them down. This is the exciting part. The bars really are heavy. They make a loud bang as they hit the indentations that years of previous shows have made on the plywood stage.

At this point the gorilla runs out into the tent and rampages through the audience as they exit. On nights and weekends, when the take justifies the expense, they will sometimes have a shill in the audience to scream and run out of the tent for an extra thrill. The whole show takes about three minutes. Everyone in the audience is thinking "For this, I paid two bucks?" But it is fun in a stupid sort of way. What most people in the audience don't realize is that it was fun because of the two bucks. If it didn't cost you it wouldn't work. It's like Letterman's joke.

A Memorable Moment on the Sidewalks of New Orleans:

I remember once, when I was a much younger man, some friends and I were attending a convention in New Orleans. Three of us slipped out to check out some of the strip-joints near Bourbon Street. At one point one of my friends had gone to the bar to get a drink and another had gone to the head when one of the girls approached me and asked if I was interested in a private show "in the back." I mentioned my friends and she said that there would be room for all three of us and she could set it up for twenty bucks. That sounded interesting so I ponied up and she directed me to some chairs set up nearer to the stage. Oh, I thought, that's where "in the back" is -- kinda disappointing.' I guess the show was better from there but we shared our "private" show with several other patrons who seemed to be drunker that we were and to have a better time. I was also distracted by a sign plainly posted on the wall that said that seats in our "VIP" area were $5.00. I had paid $20.00 for three. But, oh well... What the heck. I tried to forget the sign and watch the girls but it was a struggle.

When we left the bar, not long afterwards, I confessed to my friends that I had been taken -- that I had let one of the girls convince me to pay twenty bucks for us to sit on the other side of the room. One of my friend's mouth dropped open. "But," he sputtered "I paid twenty dollars for the show." We glanced at the third member of our party. He stared at his feet for a minute and then nodded. That was a great moment -- standing there on the sidewalk like hayseeds who had come to the big city to be fleeced. We had been taken by experts. The girls had waited for exactly the right moment, when we were separated, and had acted with skill and precision. A good hustle has all the elements of a magic trick -- the pledge, the turn, misdirection, the prestige -- they were all there and they were perfect. We never had a clue. It was an honor to get to see it... and well worth sixty bucks.

Brooklyn Camera Shops:

So, having established the compensatory pleasures of appreciating a skillful ripoff, even when it costs you money, we come to the attractions offered by Brooklyn photographic equipment discounters in general, and in particular.

A bit of background before we turn on the dodofo and invite our impatient friends to rejoin us: When purchasing discounted photographic equipment from online vendors one makes certain allowances. The product will frequently have passed through the inventory of several vendors who, for whatever reason, found it difficult to sell, so it is not unexpected for the packaging to be shopworn. Packages will frequently have been opened and the contents rearranged; items packaged to be sold as bundled kits may have been separated and sold individually. With a first-tier retail merchant, any of these things would be cause for complaint. But when you are bottom-fishing in the discount market they are par for the course.

What one should insist on is that the shipment contains the equipment listed in the advertisement, and that the equipment is in the condition described. Manufacturer’s warranties are of particular significance in such transactions since one of the possible reasons the equipment wound up in the discount market is that there is a problem with the equipment and, since the vendors who sell such equipment online frequently have limited resources to deal with product complaints, a valid manufacturer’s warranty offers some assurance to the buyer and is factored into his buying decision.
I found through Google's shopping application. Their offering wasn't the least expensive one I found -- another dealer sells refurbished Nikon D7000s for a bit less -- but they were slightly less expensive than and claimed to be selling new products with US warranties. Here's the ad to which I responded:
 bpp2 by bigleehimself 
The Ad, a screenshot by bigleehimself on Flickr.

The ad to which I responded in making my purchase (see above) listed the following:
• Battery
• Charger
• Eyepiece Shield
• Rubber Eyecup
• USB Cable
• A/V Cable
• Camera Strap
• Hot-Shoe Cover
• Body Cap
• Software Suite CD-ROM (incl. ViewNX)
1-Year Limited Warranty [emphasis added, not in original]

Elsewhere on the page this text appears:

bpp3 by bigleehimself
bpp3, a photo by bigleehimself on Flickr.

The term “USA Warranty” should be mentioned here since it is intended to reassure buyers that they are not buying gray market merchandise. When photographic equipment manufacturers build their products the serial number of each unit is associated with the market into which it is to be sold. For Nikon, as I recall, the regions are: the US, Canada, the Americas (except for US and Canada), Europe, Japan, Asia(except for Japan),and Oceanea (Australia, New Zealand). “Gray Market” equipment is anything sold outside of the market for which it was made. Manufacturers generally will not honor the warranty for gray market products and Nikon USA, in particular, is very restrictive in that most Nikon service facilities will not even offer out-of-warranty, paid service for gray market products. It is neither illegal nor unethical to openly sell gray market cameras provided that the buyer is not misled about their gray market status, but because of their lack of a manufacturer’s warranty and the longer-term difficulty in getting service, they command lower prices.

An example of a reputable company that sells gray market products is B&H Photo. They don't carry gray market digital cameras but do carry gray market Nikon lenses which are clearly identified in their catalog and each entry has a link to an explanation of how the product is supported. Here is their policy on the gray market products they sell.

The First Act: The Order Confirmation Phone Call
Before your online order is processed, BestPricePhoto will give you a call to make sure the order is legitimate and correct, and to help you select additional accessories you might not have thought of when you placed your order. When I spoke to Chris, who helped me with my order, he asked if I wanted the "two hour" or the "four hour" battery. The item list for my order included a battery, of course, but BestPricePhoto has several upgrade batteries available. I declined his offer but later I looked up the batteries they have available for the D7000.
 bpp4 by bigleehimself
bpp4, a photo by bigleehimself on Flickr.

What is shown here is their advertised price. Five-star reviews from grateful customers have suggested that BestPricePhoto will frequently give discounts on these batteries when ordered to replace the battery that comes in the kit.

But the funny thing is... There is only one battery that can go in the battery compartment of a Nikon D7000 -- the Nikon EN-EL15. It's a new battery and the knock-off battery manufacturers haven't gotten around to it. There's no such thing as a higher-capacity version, nor a "demo" battery. If any other battery existed you could find it on eBay. Try searching for "nikon d7000 battery -charger -grip -mb-d11 -door -multi" and see if anything but EN-EL15 pops up. Oh, and Nikon's suggested list price? As of this writing, $72.95. So, you might be tempted to ask, if the camera comes with a battery, what is in those other options? I dunno. My theory: Profit Margin

Act two: Fun with my Credit Card
The next event in the sequence is BestPricePhoto's efforts to charge my credit card. The first time they sent it through AmEx declined it as suspicious. I received email both from BPP's billing department and from AmEx both saying the charge had been declined and asking me to verify it. I didn't think much of it at the time. Credit card companies will often call to verify a charge that seems 'unusual' and I don't place orders of that size with online dealers all the time. I called AmEx, verified that I had expected a charge for that amount on that date and then called BestPricePhoto to tell them they could try again. Oddly, later, when I was reviewing my credit card transactions,I noticed that the first attempt to put the charge through (the one that was declined) showed the merchant as MCJ DISCOUNTS INC while the second (successful) charge shows the merchant as

Doing Business As: 8887821617BESTPRICEPHOTOC
Merchant Address: 2380 60TH ST BROOKLYN NY 11204

The only things the Google search engine could come up with for MCJ DISCOUNTS INC was that it was incorporated in May of this year (three months ago) and its address is 80 Broad St New York, NY 10004 (fifth floor).

It was good to get an address for, though. Web sites are so impersonal. After calls to confirm my order, and calls to get an invoice, calls about my credit card, calls to get tracking information, etc., etc., I was really starting to feel like I knew those guys. I think there are three of them but I've only talked to two. It was fun to know where they worked so I could visualize them while I had them on the phone.
FSC_6458 (2378 60th St) by bigleehimself
2378-2380 60th St, photo by Don Wiss used by permission by bigleehimself on Flickr.

I was going to use a screen shot from Google Maps Street View to show the address but the last time the camera car went down that street seems to be quite a while ago and several businesses have come and gone in the interim. I was fortunate to find Don Wiss' page where he has photos of most of the Brooklyn Camera Store storefronts ( I sent him a note asking if I could use his photo of the building but he said it was too old and he would send me a newer one. His newest photo is still a couple of months old and the "going out of business" signs may be gone. And to be totally fair: the building shown in the photo has two addresses. The "going out of business" shop (at 2378) may not be related., technically, does business out of the whited-out door on the right (2380).

Act three:My Nikon D7000 Arrives
My camera was waiting for me when I came home from work nine days after I launched my order. Even with the delays involved in getting the credit card charge to go through they had gotten it to me within the time I was told to expect. So the shipping was OK; I'll give them that. And the contents of the shipment were, at first glance, more or less what I expected: A Nikon box for a D7000+lens kit with the 18-105mm lens pulled out, presumably to sell separately. The promised "accessory pack" was a no-show; no toy tripod, no memory card wallet, but I hadn't wanted that stuff anyway and I didn't care. The accessories I did care about -- users manual, battery, charger, strap, etc., were all there and seemed in good order. BUT a few things were missing...

The box contained no "quick start guide" and no warranty paperwork of any sort. I checked the users manual to see if there was a section on the warranty in there. No go. I did some online research and found discussions that said that Nikon DSLR bodies don't require a paper warranty card -- you can just register them online. I tried that. The Nikon product registration page didn't like my serial number.
20110816_1 by bigleehimself
The Box, a photo by bigleehimself on Flickr.

20110816_2 by bigleehimself
serial number, a photo by bigleehimself on Flickr.

graymarketd7000 by bigleehimself
graymarketd7000, a photo by bigleehimself on Flickr.

A note on the value of Warranties: Modern digital cameras are surprisingly reliable. Occasionally, you will find one with a manufacturing defect that keeps it from working right out of the box, but usually they will work fine throughout the warranty period. Less expensive cameras are less durable and tend to wear out after a while -- but still long after the warranty is over -- and the vast majority of purchasers of such cameras will never have occasion to find out if their warranty is worth anything. Additionally, no one expects to get their cheap camera repaired once it is out of warranty -- they just throw it away and buy another one -- so out of warranty repairs on a hundred and thirty-dollar camera are not an issue. But for cameras costing anywhere north of five hundred dollars, with an expected useful lifetime that can run into the decades, matters are different. More on that later.

Act four: Misdirection
I called BestPricePhoto and spoke with “Raymond” who appears to be their entire customer service department. I mentioned the lack of warranty documentation. His response, as I recall: “Oh, did they forget to put that in?” I also mentioned my inability to register the camera with Nikon. His response was that they worked directly with a Nikon service facility and that they would handle the process of registering the camera. He promised me a certificate of warranty “straight from Nikon” and made me hold the phone while he “had the Nikon guys send it to me.” After a few minutes wait he said he had the certification and would send it to me along with another copy of my invoice so everything would be together. In a few minutes another email arrived. Here are the more interesting parts of it...

Capturea by bigleehimself
Cert part A, a photo by bigleehimself on Flickr.

A few more links to Nikon pages omitted...
Captureb by bigleehimself
Cert part b, a photo by bigleehimself on Flickr.

It's really remarkable the pull that BestPricePhotos's service center's Nikon Guys have with the company. Nikon USA seems to be filled with rage at the gray market -- often willing to alienate their own customers if they think it might depress the value of gray market products -- but when BestPricePhoto's guys at the "Nikon" service center ask Nikon to fix up a gray market camera with a warranty, they apparently say: "Well, as a favor to youse guys I guess it's OK..."

For those of you who aren't into photography, let me tell a story that illustrates what a remarkable document they had sent me.

A satanist walks into a church, saying he wants to confess his sins and seek forgiveness. He says that he has reached an age where satanism just isn't as much fun as it used to be. The thrill of human sacrifice has faded; he has grown too fat for orgies and is sure that he looks ridiculous at them; finding virgins to despoil on alters grows more difficult every month and he is ready to change teams. He asks the priest if anything can be done. The priest ask for a small donation -- for the work of the church -- and walks off. A few minutes later he returns with a piece of paper and gives it to the satanist. As the satanist reads it he becomes more and more amazed. "I had hoped there might be some hope," he said, "but I never expected full absolution in the form of a hand-written note from the Pope!... and in a Lutheran church!"

Act five: Someone in the Audience Sees the Trap Door!
My “certification of warranty” didn’t mention a warranty at all – no warranty period, no description of coverage, nothing – it was merely an assurance that my product had been registered for me. Also, the telephone number provided was the toll-free number for BestPricePhoto and, being, I’m afraid, a suspicious person, I wondered if the note had actually come “from Nikon” as claimed.

I contacted someone who does work for Nikon (but has asked not to be identified), providing him with the text of the note above and asking if the warranty it described was likely to be legitimate. His opinion: "None of the information you provided looks legitimate. If the serial number of the D7000 is 6223221, this is not a USA model."

I called BestPriceCamera and, once again, spoke to Raymond. I told him that the warranty confirmation he had sent, since it contained no information about what was warranted, for how long, what would be fixed or by whom, was not sufficient and that I considered his advertisement deceptive and wanted to return the camera. At this point he offered to give me a warranty in writing and to extend the warranty to three years at no charge. He told me that the warranty would be offered by and that I should look into them and I would be satisfied. He sent another invoice, this time including a three year warranty (paperwork to be shipped at a future date). The line item on the invoice contains no indication of who will be providing the warranty, again allowing credulous customers to think it is Nikon.

I researched and found that, while they have a well-designed website, their reputation for servicing warranties on high-dollar items was spotty. It didn’t help that the address provided on the CSPCentral “Contact Us” page -- 1678 McDonald Avenue, Brooklyn, NY 11230 – was exactly one block from the address for BestPriceCameras. I saw this as a negative because at this point I had had rather enough of Brooklyn for a while. A am once again indebted to Don Wiss for this photo of CPSCentral',s storefront:
FSC_3070 (1678 McDonald Ave) by bigleehimself
CPSCentral (1678 McDonald Ave), photo by Don Wiss used by permission by bigleehimself on Flickr.
Those not familiar with Brooklyn addresses might find this map useful. Point "A" is and point "B" is CPSCentral.
View Larger Map

A Few Thoughts About Online Reputation

One problem one has when complaining about one's treatment by an online merchant is how many happy, contented customers they have -- how many five-star ratings they have been given. One feels about as welcome as the guy in the third row at a magic show who yells things about mirrors and shaved cards. Most of BestPricePhoto's customers are blissfully happy with their transactions, and many of them have every reason to be. They were looking to buy a working, inexpensive camera at a discount price. And that's what they got. There may be a few line items -- for accessories and upgrades -- where they have paid more for showmanship than for value, but they are happy with the bottom line nonetheless. The ones who have purchased the less expensive cameras may have been ever-so-slightly ripped off in the warranty department but warranties for cheap cameras are of very little value anyway so, hey, if they are happy with the camera, why not?

It's the people like me -- people who fall for their "Hot Deal Today Only" special on the more-expensive 'enthusiast' cameras -- who queer the deal for everybody. If we are sold an expensive camera that we plan to use for many years and it has no warranty, or a warranty of limited value, and if it will be difficult to obtain service for the lifetime of the camera, then we have been harmed. Many of us won't know there will be problems getting service for the camera for years and when we do find out most of us will be mad at Nikon.

Act six: The Curtain Comes Down
I decided that I could not accept BestPriceCamera’s latest offer since: 1) what was shipped was not what was advertised, specifically a camera with a US warranty; 2) When questioned about the warranty BestPriceCamera had made a concerted effort to conceal the warranty status of the camera, including sending me a an email claiming to come from Nikon; and 3) the substitute they offered when they realized they could not convince me the camera had a Nikon warranty was not a fair substitute.

I called BestPriceCamera back and told Raymond that, having looked into the matter I still needed to return the camera and that, if charged a restocking fee, I would contest it since the product shipped was not as described when I ordered. Before he would issue the return authorization he had me go to his website and view a different listing for the D7000. He was hoping to convince me that I had received a gray market camera because I had mistakenly ordered the “Nikon D7000, 16.2 MP Digital SLR Camera Body” instead of the “Nikon D7000, 16.2 MP Digital SLR Camera Body -USA Retail Kit With Long Life Battery & Quick Charger”. It is impossible for me to know what I would have received if I had ordered the other (slightly more expensive) item but if you open both offers and look at the “This Product Includes” list you will see that both kits have the same exact contents listed including the same exact wording for the “one year limited warranty”.

The camera has gone back and a replacement ordered from Whether I wind up paying the 10% 'restocking fee' to BestPriceCamera remains to be seen.

Random Notes:

For information on Gabora the Gorilla Girl, see
‘Gorilla Girl’ sideshow act hangs on despite changing times and for how it works, check out Pepper's Ghost'

For comparison purposes, here is a Google Maps street view of Nikon's warranty service department from their address:

View Larger Map

Here's a photo I found on Flickr. Dunno if its the same building.
Nikon Headquarters by Joe Shlabotnik
Nikon Headquarters, a photo by Joe Shlabotnik on Flickr.