Friday, August 31, 2012

Deep Thought

I was listening to Radiolab this afternoon, and on it they had a segment about a software program called "Eureka," the task of which is to analyze very complex data and discover a formula (or set of formulae) that describe it. For example, the swinging of two interacting pendulums, or the patterns in a living cell.

And Eureka does a great job of extracting such formulae, but provides no meaning behind it. It has the answers, in other words, but not the questions. As soon as I heard this I immediately flashed back to The Hitchhiker's Guide To the Galaxy by Douglas Adams. Here is an excerpt from the fifth episode of the original radio series:

... [A]nd so one day a race of hyper-intelligent pan-dimensional beings built themselves a gigantic supercomputer called Deep Thought to calculate once and for all the answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything. For seven and a half million years Deep Thought computed and calculated and eventually announced that the answer was in fact forty-two, and so an even bigger computer had to be built to find out what the actual question was.

I quote Douglas Adams a lot, not only because his material is mind-bogglingly funny, but because so much of it, even when not based in fact, is nevertheless true. Which is, of course, what makes it so funny.

I wonder, now that we have built a smaller (and faster, apparently) version of Deep Thought, will we ever manage to build that second supercomputer to find the questions behind the answers?

By the way, if you're not familiar with the series, the second computer had a very dull name. It was called "the Earth."

Friday, August 10, 2012

The Dying of American Retail

On Wednesday, on the way to a fun day with my wife and youngest son in York, Maine, I stopped by to drop some old negatives off at Ritz Camera in Newington, New Hampshire, to be transformed into digital images. For this process, I had subscribed to something called Ritz Network, which takes about $20 a months out of my bank account and puts it on a card I can use to pay for the imaging work. In exchange for that, I got $50 off my most recent camera purchase.

I made this deal because I knew that I had a lot of negatives I wanted to convert, since I print very little these days, and because the store is as convenient as I can expect living out in the boondocks as I do; it's about 20 miles from where my wife works, and so in a location we are frequently close to.

Only problem is that the store is gone. Kaput. Empty, with half its sign torn down and a whole lot of nothing inside. So now, if I want to convert my old negatives using the Network card, I have to take them to Salem, 50 miles from home in a direction we almost never go. It one of the services Ritz only does in store, and it is the primary reason I got the card.

And it isn't just that the store is closed. It's that I had to show up at the mall, ready to do business, to find out it was closed.

I am a registered Ritz customer with an address in New Hampshire. I've ordered products and services online to be picked up in Newington. And yet Ritz did not see fit to inform me that the store nearest my location was closing, or offer me any kind of compensation for my inconvenience.

If this is how American retail acts (and it frequently is), then it's no wonder that customers are bailing. Look, we don't have time, money, or patience for this treatment anymore. If you want to keep your customers, you have to remember that you need them more than they need you.

I'm pissed off, and I want my money back. But I can live without my local Ritz Camera. I can find someone else who'll digitize my negatives, and I'll probably do it through the mail.

It's not just the economy that's killing American retail; in many ways, American retail is killing itself.