Canadians are Getting Screwed

Since returning to Canada, I’ve been struck by two things: how expensive some items are, and how willing Canadians seem to be to endure unfair pricing. The Canadian dollar’s near-par value with the US dollar seems to be largely unreflected in the prices of goods.

That’s not to say that merchants aren’t facing some pressure – I’ve seen a number of large stores with explanatory signs that try to hand-wave away the differences in US and Canadian prices. Merchants are trying to position the problem as one of inventory, and differing costs of doing business. The idea is that the merchant may have bought the goods at a time when the Canadian dollar was weaker, and hence the price reflects the exchange rate at that time.

This all sound plausible until confronted with cases to the contrary. Case in point: the latest version of Microsoft Office for Mac. On the US Apple store, the price for the software is $149.99 USD, whereas on the Canadian Apple store the price is $199.99 CDN. Given that the software was only released in January, the “we’ve got inventory” defense doesn’t really seem to apply. And given that both products are identical, and both are probably drop-shipped from a DVD duplication plant in China (hence subject to the same shipping costs, although Apple offers free shipping from both sites), that only leaves differences in import duty to explain the difference. And I hardly think that a CD has a 33% duty applied to it.

Come on Canucks, get a bit angry and start giving vendors an earful. It’s the only way things will change.

PGP Global Directory OpenSearch Plugin

The PGP Global Directory OpenSearch Plugin in action!I’ve been enjoying the past couple of weeks tinkering on a number of personal projects, and came across the OpenSearch capabilities of Firefox while researching Firefox extension development.

For most users, the most visible manifestation of OpenSearch is the “search engine” feature of the browser, which allows the user to add additional search engines to their browser’s search field. This allows you to easily perform searches on Google, Amazon, and many others, directly from the search bar in Firefox (as well as Internet Explorer 7, with some caveats).

Intrigued, I built a little OpenSearch implementation: the PGP Global Directory OpenSearch Plugin. This OpenSearch plugin allows you to search for OpenPGP public keys hosted by the PGP Global Directory, right from your web browser. It’s not especially useful, but it was a fun diversion I thought I’d share. Enjoy!

Quicken: Defective by Design?

I’ve been using Quicken for about four years to track our household finances, pay bills, and manage investments. The software is…inelegant, to put it politely. The user interface could do with a bit of refactoring to say the least. But, all things, considered, it does the job as well as anything else out there, and I saw no reason to change. Until now.

Here’s the screen that Quicken presented to me a few weeks ago:

Quicken 2005 Discontinuation Notice

Now, the problem here is the somewhat misleading language. The term “Online Services” is vague in the context of Quicken – it could mean the functionality that allows you to download financial information about investments from, or it could mean the ability to download your banking information from your own bank. It would appear that Quicken is trying to imply that as of April 2008, you won’t be able to download information from your bank, data which is downloaded directly from the bank, not through

If that’s the case, this appears to be a fairly strong-armed attempt by Intuit to force users to upgrade to the new version of Quicken, a version which, by all accounts, does pretty much the same thing as Quicken 2005. Anyone know for sure if this is the case?

This isn’t the only Quicken defect that is bugging me. Upon our return to Canada, I re-added my Mastercard account to Quicken, only to have it refuse to import the downloaded data from the Bank of Montreal:

Downloaded transactions are in a currency other than US Dollars. Online banking can only be used with accounts in US Dollars.

Let’s see if I’ve got this right: Quicken contacts the server, downloads the data for my account, pulls it in and recognizes that the account is in Canadian dollars, and then decides to block the import. Last I checked, numbers are numbers. I manage Canadian dollar accounts from within Quicken without any problem – why is this any different? In fact, I used the copy of Quicken 2004 I bought in Canada when I first arrived in the US without a similar problem. What gives?

Oh right – it’s another wonderful way to wring money from existing customers. Bravo Intuit. Bravo.

Unbleeped Media: Thank

There are many reasons to be glad to be back in Canada, and I’m sure I’ll get around to writing about those at some point, but for now: I’m watching Team America on cable without any annoying <bleeps> spoiling the adult-themed humour.

Which reminds me of another reason to be glad to be back: the letter “u” is officially back in English words again.

Scannerfly at DemoCampVancouver 05

I hadn’t really anticipated demonstrating my little side project when I attended DemoCampVancouver last week, but I had a demo ready and Boris needed more people to participate in the 30-second pitches, so I volunteered. Of course, no good deed goes unpunished, and I was chosen to give a six-minute presentation of the technology. Roland Tanglao captured my web-based barcode scanner demo, which I’ve embedded here for your viewing pleasure.

Update: Bruce Sharpe over at Singular Productions has posted a much more polished version of the video of my demo, embedded below for your viewing pleasure:

Mac OS X 10.5.2 Permissions Problems

I just updated to 10.5.2 this morning and encountered a bit of confusion (“Why the heck do I have to keep entering my password to delete a file?”) I tracked down the problem, discovering that the update, for whatever reason, changed the permission on my Documents directory to be read-only.

For those of you who find yourself in the same position, you can correct this from the Terminal with a quick:

chmod +w Documents

That’ll make the Documents directory writable again, and get your life back to normal.

The Friendly Shopkeeper Advertising Model

The dirty little secret that nobody wants to admit, amidst the Web 2.0 crowd’s rush to monetize any piece of content that isn’t nailed to the floor, is that advertising sucks. This isn’t a new problem. Prior to the Internet, you were lucky to get 2% response rates to advertising campaigns. The magnitude of the failure of traditional advertising only became apparent when two guys from Stanford realized that you could show ads based on people’s search criteria and provide much more targeted ads. While this observation only doubled response rates to a paltry 4%, that multiple is currently responsible for the billion dollars a quarter that Google generates in revenue.

But this isn’t really an achievement to celebrate, at least, not yet.

The problem with most advertising is that, on a macro-scale, it’s almost indistinguishable from spam. Think of all the advertising that gets thrown at you on a daily basis: the flyers that show up at your door, simply because you live in a certain neighbourhood; the brochures and pullouts stuffed in magazines and newspapers that pitch you products simply because that magazine’s readership fits a certain demographic profile; and let’s not forget the billboards, the radio ads, and, yes, even the urinal posters. These woefully unwanted come-ons inadvertently communicate one unavoidable message to a consumer: that the advertiser, while desperate for your business, knows absolutely nothing about you.

There is a better model of advertising that’s coming, something I like to call the “friendly shopkeeper” model of advertising. Allow me to elaborate…

There was a time when you would go into physical store and the shopkeeper behind the counter might know your name, but more importantly, remembered the kind of stuff you’d asked about in the past, and most important of all, the stuff you had bought in the past. This, combined with the shopkeeper’s own rich and deep understanding of new products and trends in the market, would allow the shopkeeper to provide a valuable service to you: the role of a trusted advisor. This person would helpfully suggest items that might interest you – for example: a new album from a band you’d never heard of, but that resembled something else the shopkeeper knew you liked.

Of course, the shopkeeper wasn’t doing this out of philanthropy, but out of a vested interest in providing a valuable service to his customers. The shopkeeper acted as an editor, weeding out the stuff that wouldn’t interest you, and suggesting things you might like. In exchange for this service, you bought the products suggested and, if the suggestions proved worthwhile, you came back and bought more stuff based on the shopkeeper’s advice. It was structured as a win-win scenario.

This is the model of the web that we should aspire to create. While many might, as seen in recent months, decry the idea of sharing information willy-nilly (cf: the Facebook Beacon fiasco), I’m not averse to sharing that information with vendors. But there’s a catch: I want some value out of giving you that information. I don’t want more advertisements, I want less ads, and only for items that I might actually be interested in.

In many cases, we’ve come close to this model, but only in specific product categories. For example: a number of services do a great job in suggesting music, and generating affiliate revenue when the listener buys a suggested song or CD. Unfortunately, none of that information ever makes it to other vendors where it might lead to better recommendations. If, for example, I end up buying a CD at, that information never gets used to improve my recommendations. Instead, I end up with a number of different vendors pitching me the same stuff again and again because they have incomplete information about me. In the simplest case, they just don’t know that I already bought that CD. That doesn’t serve their interests (it’s highly unlikely I’m going to buy the same product again and again), and it doesn’t serve mine (because I’m not getting introduced to interesting new music).

In an ideal world, online vendors would know me better than I may even know myself. They wouldn’t suggest stuff I already own. They would know my friends and what they’ve purchased. They would even have noticed who among my friends are key tastemakers and influencers on my preferences to derive even better recommendations (after all, nobody chooses friends with whom they have nothing in common). They would amalgamate all of this information wherever it lives. It would do this in an aggregate fashion that, unlike Facebook’s Beacon, doesn’t reveal my purchases directly to others but instead uses that information to feed a recommendation engine with the fuel it needs to provide personalized, customized advertising.

In the end, what I want is not advertising, but something that achieves all the goals of advertising: matching people who have something to sell with people who want to buy it, but with 100% accuracy (or, at the very least, 0% annoyance and intrusion).

(This post was inspired by something I’ve been thinking about for a while, coupled with a desperate need to beat Ian Bell to the punch on claiming the “friendly shopkeeper” metaphor, something his company is working on achieving with their Facebook application. Disclosure: Ian is a friend. )

The Long Goodbye

The time has finally come to say goodbye to Silicon Valley. Ashley and I will be moving back to Vancouver tomorrow, leaving the place we’ve called home for the past four years. Rather than dwell on the sadness of leaving the Tech Mecca, I thought I’d take the time to reflect on the good stuff we’ve experienced while we were down here:

  • Music: The Bay Area is a cornucopia of good music. Through the local friendly radio station, KFOG, we got introduced to a number of great bands and artists, and I finally came to understand the Grateful Dead phenomenon after being a longtime Phish fan. We took in a few concerts, including some nice small concerts with some Canadian rock heroes (Sloan, The Tragically Hip).
  • People: We met a lot of great people here building the next great Internet whatchamacallit, and hope to stay in touch with all of them in the coming years. They include, in no particular order, Min Jung Kim, Mike Allen, Matt Mullenweg, Kevin Burton, Eleanor Kruzewski, Russell Beattie, Mike Rowehl, Brad Neuberg, and many, many others. We even managed to meet a few minor celebrities along the way, which was pretty cool. Best of all, I got to spend some quality time with a fellow global nomad, longtime friend, and former college room-mate Kevin Cheng.
  • Events: If there’s something you’re interested in, the Bay Area has the benefit that there’s a lot of other people just as nerdy as you who are also interested in it. Ashley and I both enjoyed the Maker Faire this year, and the various other events like BlogHer, BloggerCon, Startup School, Wired’s NextFest, the Singularity Summit, and others over the past couple of years. And of course, who could forget CampCamp?
  • Travel: It’s been a busy couple of years for traveling. From a business perspective, I’ve been around the US several times over. From a personal perspective, we had a number of nice vacations: Maui, LA, Turks & Caicos, and Paris. Good times.

What does the future hold? Who knows. I’ve been working on some code for a while that I hope to license out (once it’s perfected), and I’m also working with a promising person-to-person lending startup that’s in the very early stages. I hope to get into writing a bit more on this blog, in part to reflect on what I’ve learned over the past four years, and to share that experience with others in the Vancouver area.

Looking forward to seeing all my old friends in Vancouver! And to those in Silicon Valley: Keep in touch!