Attention Advertisers!

Yesterday I received yet another “pre-approved” credit card application in the mail from Royal Bank. The same Royal Bank that I’ve instructed two times in the last six months to remove my name from their mailing list, in addition to the “do not contact me” checkbox on my application for a Group RRSP account with my old employer that I signed over a year ago. Apparently they just don’t get it. I’m not interested. I never have been interested. I never will be interested. Advertisers: Stop wasting your time, my time, and a whole forest in your pathetic attempt at “direct” marketing.

In the last six months, I’ve received no less than ten un-addressed pre-approved credit card applications from Capital One. Ten. Do they think I just overlooked these things? Was I desperate for credit but just so incredibly inept that I couldn’t figure out how to mail an application?

The amusing/annoying part is when you try to do these companies a favour and notify them you’re not interested. Capital One, for example, doesn’t actually provide an email address or direct phone number to contact to have your name removed. Instead, they hide the information on how to get removed at the bottom of the mailing address page on their web site. It appears that Capital One is especially dedicated to wasting their money advertising to people who aren’t interested. I wonder what the company’s investors would think about that?

There is an easier way (sort of) to get your name removed from these lists through the Canadian Marketing Association‘s Do Not Contact registrar. Unfortunately, this will only eliminate the mail from those companies that are members of the CMA. And last time I checked, most of my junk mail comes from local realtors, pizza shops, Chinese restaurants, et cetera. Guess how many of them are CMA members? That’s right, zero!

What amazes me most about advertisers is how they blindly blast people with ads for stuff they would never buy, even if they had the money. Personally, I’d be happy to tell advertisers everything about me if it would guarantee that the only companies that advertised to me were ones that sold something I actually wanted to buy. But then again, I guess that runs counter to the purpose of advertising.

In this day and age, why are advertisers still relying on Neanderthal techniques to determine who to target for “direct” marketing? Canada Post offers a service that allows bulk mailers to “target” postal walks, based on the assumption that a person’s living area is a great indicator of what a person will buy. Just because I live in a trendy area doesn’t mean I’m interesting in buying or selling a condo, obtaining a platinum card, or buying an SUV. People are more than blips on the demographic radar, and it’s time advertisers learned to stop trying to hard sell people who just don’t care about what they’re selling.

David Suzuki Replies

I received a fax reply today from David Suzuki regarding the question I asked him. To paraphrase, I asked Dr. Suzuki why he hadn’t released his an electronic version of his book, as a way of not only spreading his message, but also as a way of deflecting any potential criticism of him “hawking stuff” while lambasting our culture of consumption.

Dr. Suzuki replied:

Dear Mr. Wilson:

Thanks for your note and the suggestion. Unfortunately, my publisher is currently going down the tube so they’re not interested in new ideas but I’ll wait and see.

I don’t think it’s hypocritical to be hawking ideas that are still tied to material things. The issue is what and how much we consume.

David Suzuki

Perhaps “hypocritical” is too strong a word, but I still feel that if Suzuki were truly interested in changing the world, then releasing an electronic version of his book would accelerate that cause. After all, a recent press release from Suzuki’s own foundation protests the recent move in BC towards self-regulation of forestry industry. What better way to make a point than to publish the book electronically and help move forward the acceptance of electronic books as an alternative to chopping down forests? If you don’t like what the forest companies are doing, why provide the material that drives the demand for paper?

Though electronic books are currently second-rate substitutes for the real thing, they won’t get any better without increased consumer demand. Publishers, such as the publisher of Suzuki’s book, are hesitant to release something for nothing until they can be sure that there will be some way in the future to make a profit. That said, a number of authors and publishers have already realized that releasing a free electronic version of their books only help their sales, and are even backing that claim with numbers that prove their point.

Network Schmetwork

We attended the TechVibes event the other night at Urban Well. This event is put on by the same crew that puts on the GeekRave events, and is designed to take over where Ideas On Tap left off when IdeaPark imploded. All in all, it was a pretty good event, although the “elevator pitch” competition sucked as usual.

For those unfamiliar with the concept: the idea of an elevator pitch competition is to imagine you step into an elevator only to be faced with the venture capitalist of your dreams. You’ve got thirty to sixty seconds to sell him on your idea during the elevator ride. Go!

Now, you’d think people would probably plan to be able to highlight, at a high level, the market opportunity they’ve identified, the technology they’ve developed to address the opportunity, and the barriers they’ve put in place to prevent others from duplicating their efforts. But do they? Of course not. They talk about who they are, and deliver something akin to a speech delivered by a high school presidential candidate. We’re number one! We’re number one!

Unfortunately, none of the contestants are actually involved in innovative businesses and, that said, don’t really have anything that interesting to offer to begin with. The candidates this time: a local computer store, a business plan preparation service, a cell phone store, and some other equally forgettable characters. When did these things turn into social events for recruiters and secretaries? Where are the real innovators?

Well, to be honest, they’re probably not at this event. People at TechVibes remind me of the guy in Singles that goes to a club to collect phones numbers to fill his new digital watch. People at these drink’n’network events seem to be part of some weird cult obsessed with collecting business cards, rather than trying to build innovative businesses. What do you do with all those cards? Build a small fort?

If you’re really looking to meet interesting people, check out other events like the Vancouver Enterprise Forum networking events, or discussion groups like Fast Company‘s Company of Friends. This is where you’ll find the real innovators trying to build real relationships, which, as pointed out by Mike Volker, will beat out “networking” any day. If you can’t call someone and have them remember you, don’t bother taking their card. Just sit back, enjoy the cheap drinks and stop fooling yourself.

David Suzuki

Ashley and I went to see David Suzuki read from his new book, Good News for a Change, at Chapters last week. Perhaps “read” is the wrong word. “Rant” might be more appropriate. Suzuki, well known for his passionate calls to change the way we live, has focused his latest book on the positive things we could be doing to save the environment rather than re-iterate the visions of doom many have come to expect from environmentalists.

That said, his presentation did still have some of his trademark comments on some of the more disturbing threats to our environment:

  • According to Suzuki, one of the most disturbing statistics he had seen recently stated that though Canadians are now having half as many children as the previous generation, they’re living in houses twice the size. This means each person is using four times as much space as the previous generation. How much is enough? This point was reiterated several times over as Suzuki pointed out the disparity in wealth distribution, not only in the world at large, but even just within North America itself.
  • Suzuki highlighted the misdirected nature of economists’ infatuation with the GDP (Gross Domestic Product) as an indicator of the success of the country’s economy, in particular pointing out that economic theory considers the environment an “externality” to the economy. When the environment is factored in by counting the services that nature provides for free and what it would cost us to duplicate those services, the result is an index that, unlike the GDP, peaked in the 70’s and has been in decline ever since. At one point in the presentation, Suzuki points out angrily that environmental disasters like the Exxon spill in Alaska caused to GDP in the US to go up, as do murder and crime. Is this our definition of “progress”?
  • In his presentation, Suzuki also touched on the threat of global warming and the potential impact of not ratifying the Kyoto Protocol. Currently the provinces are taking the position that Kyoto will cost too much to implement, and result in job untold economic damage. Suzuki noted that these predictions discounted the potential for much greater economic prosperity as new companies are created to meet the demand for more environmentally friendly products and solutions.

With a wry smile, Suzuki recognized his own hypocrisy for condemning society’s obsession with buying more “stuff” while appearing at Chapters to hawk his own book. Unfortunately, Dr. Suzuki’s presentation didn’t leave much time for questions; otherwise I would have asked him why he hadn’t made the book available for free on the Internet. Such a move would have not only deflected any criticism for him peddling “stuff”, but also would probably had greater potential to get his message out to a wider audience, which I think is something he probably cares about more than money.

Oh well, I just faxed him the question in the end anyway.

Eat The Garnish

Remember as a kid when your parents had to tell you not to eat the parsley that accompanied your dinner? I was always mystified by this idea of food as a decoration. Why would a restaurant put food on your plate if you weren’t supposed to eat it? What was the point?

This thought occurred to me again as I saved my martini from being whisked away by an overly efficient waitress at Fiction, a local restaurant/martini bar/hangout. True, the drink itself was finished, but the best part of the drink remained: two lonely cranberries huddled together for protection at the bottom of my glass, awaiting the inevitable. Meanwhile, my drink’s lemon wedge patiently perched on the edge of my glass, waiting for the chance to jump for the door and make tracks to Mexico…and freedom!

The waitress’s haste only served to underline what my parents had tried to teach me as a child: it’s not food, stupid, it’s garnish. But does anyone know what it takes to get a fresh lemon and two cranberries to the West Coast of Canada in the middle of spring? Well, I sure don’t, not even after looking on the Internet. Damn Google. But even without Internet confirmation, I’m certain it isn’t easy.

How much of that garnish is actually good food going to waste? Consider the forms of garnish that most people send back uneaten:

  • Cranberries
  • Lemon and orange wedges
  • Lettuce
  • Parsley
  • Carrot slices
  • French fries

According to the US Environmental Protection Agency food discards in 1995 generated 14 million tons of waste. A mere 5% of this amount of food would be enough to feed roughly 4 million people for a day!

With all of the starvation in the world, why do we waste this food? It’s simple: we’re a product of a society obsessed with form and presentation because we have nothing left to occupy our time and attention. Garnish is to food as Gucci is to loafers. And in the case of the wicker loafers they’re probably both made of the same stuff. So the next time you’re out for a meal and it’s better dressed than you, eat the garnish.

New Ventures BC

Those of you with aspirations of entrepreneurial glory might be interested in the business plan competition underway over at New Ventures BC. The competition is one of the largest business plan competitions in North America, based on the $120,000 worth of prizes up for grabs. Registration costs $25, and the deadline for registering your idea for the first round of the competition is April 15th.

Though I was interested in entering the competition this year, I haven’t really got an idea that I’m happy with. I also wouldn’t really feel good about entering the competition, given that I don’t really plan to start a business right now. I know I’m going to be pretty busy for the next year now that I’ve accepted UBC’s offer of admission to their MBA program. Sure, I probably wouldn’t win, but if I did, I think it would be pretty slimy to take the money and run.

That said, the New Ventures BC competition is offering a number of free seminars on various aspects of starting a new business venture. The seminars are designed to help those who are registered for business plan competition, but are open to anyone that registers to attend the seminars ahead of time. I attended the first seminar, “Managing Intellectual Property”, last Thursday. Two hours with two patent lawyers that probably would be worth a couple thousand bucks if you actually had to pay for their time. Anyone interested in business would be stupid not to take advantage of this learning opportunity.

Then again, maybe spending your Thursday night with lawyers isn’t your idea of a good time.

Celine Dion: Hacker?

The release of Celine Dion’s newest CD this week heralded not only the singer’s hopeful comeback to the world of music, but also a potential career change for the Canadian chanteuse. With the release of her new latest album, A New Day Has Come, Dion may be preparing to undergo the unprecedented transformation from diva to hacker. Or even terrorist.

In Europe, Dion’s newest release incorporates Sony’s Key2Audio technology, a copyright protection technology that has the unfortunate effect of crashing the computers of users who insert the disc into their machines. The Key2Audio technology is designed to thwart unauthorized piracy of music using personal computers, but the methods used to achieve this end may have disastrous consequences for unsophisticated users. Though the discs carry explicit warning labels, it is probable that average users will not fully comprehend the warnings and inevitably lose unsaved data when they insert the disc into their machine.

One might wonder if the Key2Audio-protected version of the album has only been released in Europe due to its lack of comprehensive computer fraud and abuse legislation, currently only under consideration by the European Union Parliament. Had the album been released in the United States, it is likely that Dion and her record company would be in violation of the US Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. Specifically, consumers would be able to launch action under US Title 18, Part I, Chapter 47, Section 1030, Subsection (a), Paragraph 5, Subparagraph (A):

Whoever knowingly causes the transmission of a program, information, code, or command, and as a result of such conduct, intentionally causes damage without authorization, to a protected computer shall be punished as provided in subsection (c) of this section.

Successful prosecution under this law would translate into a fine, imprisonment, or both. In fact, under the newly anointed Anti-Terrorism Act, it’s possible that either Dion’s record company or the singer herself could be prosecuted as a terrorist, something that would no doubt delight the singer’s critics.

Of course, this is all conjecture. Is it likely that a record company would fall victim to the same legislation designed to protect the American public from nefarious ne’er-do-well hackers? Probably not. Given the precedent-setting nature of such a case, the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) would undoubtedly mobilize its lawyers to defend its members’ right to protect their intellectual property. However, the resulting lawsuit would require Dion, her record company, and the RIAA to position themselves opposite the United States’ formidable anti-hacking laws.

If the RIAA won such a fight, it would not only eliminate its customers’ right to access music they had already purchased, it would also set a dangerous precedent that would risk crippling law enforcement’s ability to pursue criminals for unauthorized computer access. Given the United States’ desire to crack down on cybercrimes, it is unlikely that it would throw away its primary tool for battling cybercriminals just to appease the music industry. And perhaps the audacity of such an attempt would finally be enough to convince the public to put the media giants in their place.

Blank Media Tax

Unless you’ve been living under a rock (or you’re not part of the technology community), you’ve probably heard of the Copyright Board of Canada‘s current proposal to levy tariffs on blank audio media. The purpose of the proposed tariffs is to compensate the music industry for lost sales due to digital piracy. Unfortunately, this proposal is misguided and fatally flawed for a number of reasons.

First, the proposed tariffs are overly broad: The proposed levies apply to types of media that are not exclusively used for music. For example, the tariffs proposed would be applied to recordable compact discs, despite the fact that such discs are also used by businesses to archive their mission critical data. As another example, the tariffs would also be applied to “Removable electronic memory cards, removable flash memory storage media of any type, and removable micro-hard drives” despite the fact that those media are used by digital cameras and digital micro-recorders. These tariffs would ignore the legitimate uses of these forms of media (beyond music storage), as well as the protected uses of these media to allow a consumer to time-shift and space-shift their own music collections, as protected under Canadian copyright law.

Second, the tariffs only benefit the music industry: The proposed levies are purported to allow the music industry to recoup losses due to piracy. However, the media that is the target of the proposed tariffs can just as easily be used to pirate copyrighted computer software, movies, or electronic books. Why should these tariffs be levied solely for the purpose of protecting the music industry, while ignoring the other industries impacted by digital piracy?

Finally, there is no mechanism described for the distribution of funds collected: The proposed tariffs skimp on the details of how the funds collected through this tariff are to be collected and distributed to the copyright holders. Who gets how much? Is it decided by the music industry? Can they be trusted to pass along the appropriate amount to the artists? Probably not. I wonder if I cut a CD, I can qualify for a cut of the proceeds?

The thing that bugs me most is that although the Board is seeking input, there is no real way to oppose the adoption of the tariffs. According to the proposal document

“The Board must certify a tariff and set a levy. Those who own the rights to sound recordings of musical works (composers, authors, performers and producers) are entitled to be remunerated for private copies. No purpose is served by asking the Board to reject the tariff as a whole.”

What purpose is served by asking for input, if the Board is not actually interested in listening to any opposing viewpoints, and acting on them?

This tariff will have a dire impact on industries that are in no way responsible for piracy or even related to the music industry. The tariff would essentially be a subsidy for the music industry, and ignore the other industries affected by digital piracy. The tariffs are ill-conceived, and should not be adopted. If anything, they should be scrapped, as should their 2001-2002 equivalents. It’s just another sad attempt by the music industry to squeeze more money out of consumers, screw the artists, and pocket the extra cash.

Mad yet? Good. Write your MP. Or better yet, start downloading and burning music before the new tariffs take effect.

Swimming With Dolphins

Friends who see my site usually ask me “Is that picture on your site you as a kid?”, or comment “Gee, you were cute then…what happened?”. Hmph. Yes, the kid is me, and no, nothing happened (except for being bounced off the crossbeams by my father as a child). But like all pictures, there’s a story behind it.

After the naked dash to the ocean...

When I was four, my dad got homesick for Australia, where he was born and raised. We decided to return to Australia for an extended visit, “we” being my parents, because let’s face it, I didn’t really have much of a say in the matter. We moved into a notorious region around Sydney called Bondi Junction for six months, and later spent another half year in Fongaray (near Whangarei) in New Zealand. One day we went to visit my grandparents and go for a day at the beach.

As luck would have it the weather was dark, overcast, and the skies were threatening to rain at any moment. Ominous black waves were rolling into the beach, like perfectly cast cylinders of smoked glass. Intermittently, a dark shape shot down an incoming wave, flashing down the tube before the wave collapsed into the shallower water.

“What’s that in the waves?”, I asked.

“Looks like the dolphins are having some fun surfing the waves,” my father replied.

Now, I was only four, and I didn’t know a lot of stuff (a condition I still suffer, some might argue), but if there was one thing I knew about dolphins is that they were friendly. They liked to play. I liked to play too. Well, that settled it then.

I stripped off all my clothes and headed for the waves like a shot before my parents, preoccupied with the clouds and grown-up conversation, knew what I was doing. And I would have made it, if it weren’t for my father sweeping me up in his arms just as I reached the water’s edge, and wrapping me in his sweater.

And, of course, took a picture.

Ways To Spend A Saturday

I wrote the GMAT (Graduate Management Admission Test) today as part of getting ready to do an MBA. The GMAT is basically a standardized test, similar to the GRE used to qualify students for graduate school in the US. The content of the test:

  • 2 essays questions (1 hour)
  • 37 multiple choice questions on mathematics (75 minutes)
  • 41 multiple choice questions on grammar and reading comprehension (75 minutes)

Overall, everything went well and I received my unofficial score after the test: 720. The test is scored out of 800, but on the normal distribution curve, that score placed me in the 97th percentile.

For anyone looking to take the GMAT, I’d offer the following pieces of advice:

  • Know the material: The topics tested by the GMAT aren’t especially difficult. Anyone who’s completed high school mathematics and English has the knowledge required to complete the test. The key to being able to write the test is practicing the types of questions you’ll see on the test.
  • Know the format: the GMAT is not a traditional test. The test is administered by computer, and the computer adjusts the difficulty of the questions you receive to match your ability. Succeeding is as much a question of knowing what tricks and traps the test employs as it is a question of whether or not you know the material.

To prepare for the GMAT, I would strongly recommend trying the sample questions and tests available from the Graduate Management Admission Council, the body responsible for establishing the GMAT. The GMAC provides a downloadable version of the GMAT computer program, complete with two tests, allowing you to practice using the actual software you’ll be using during the actual GMAT.

GMAT for DummiesAnother resource I used to prepare was The GMAT For Dummies. The book provides comprehensive review of the math and grammer you’ll need to ace the test, as well as numerous examples, sample questions, and even two full length paper tests.With the book, and as little as an hour a week over the course of two months, you should be able to ace the GMAT easily. Good luck!