Creepy Drug Store Privacy (and how I predicted it)

I had this wonderful rant all queued up about how a major drug store chain has crossed the line into “creepy” with their updated rewards card program. And then I realized that I already predicted this would happen over 20 years ago, and how many privacy advocates are closing the barn door after the cows have already left.

Let’s start with what’s relevant from the rant I had already typed out. Recently, I had the pleasure of having a run-in with a clerk at a national drug store chain. They are getting pretty insistent at signing people up for their “privacy-eliminating marginal discount card”, to the point that I actually got in a small argument with the clerk. The clerk helpfully (?) said something to the extent of “oh, I don’t give them my REAL information…”

As a quick sidebar, I found that personally humorous. Here is a clerk outright telling me that she’s committing an act of fraud against her employer, and all but encouraging me to do the same so I can save a dollar. Wow.

Anyway, it got me thinking about how this particular national chain was going about it all wrong, and how another chain (a national grocery store chain that operates a regional hypermarket.. oh, hell, I’m talking about Fred Meyer) seems to do it right. The differences were all academic, actually, because after thinking about it for a bit I even came to the conclusion that I wasn’t 100% satisfied with how Uncle Freddy does it, either; and there was plenty of privacy implications with the Fred Meyer approach.

So, here’s how the Fred Meyer Rewards program works, and why at first it seems like a much better way than most other loyalty card programs. When you shop at Fred Meyer, regardless of whether or not you have a Rewards card you pay the same price. There’s no “$1 off with our discount card” nonsense* and very few actual gimmicks: at the end of every quarter, they send you a coupon worth a small percentage of that period’s purchases.  They also give you points towards discounted gasoline purchases, and even keep track of purchases at the coffee kiosk for free coffee.

Okay, so that seemed like a better approach.  Until I unearthed a little piece of Commodore 64 code I wrote as a kid on a recent “storage unit spelunking adventure.”

Let’s set the wayback to the 1980’s.  A grocery store chain in Southern California had a novel way of handling checks.  Rather than have the cashiers check a master list for bad checks, or having the (primitive by today’s standards) cash register maintain a list, they had a stand-alone check authorization computer.  It sat in the front of the store, and you had a mag-stripe card that you’d use to get your check “approved” before you went shopping.  This system fascinated me, because it seemed like an elegant hack to an obvious problem.  I envisioned all kinds of wonderfully complicated approaches to granting approval: some probably predicting the fraud detection algorithms used by modern credit card processors to determine “iffy” transactions.

In the end, I simply started writing a small program to do the same thing using the C-64.  I did this mostly as an exercise in creating a simple database system that used CBM’s “REL” files (which were somewhat unreliable and REALLY slow, quite an accomplishment for the slowest disk hardware of any 8-bit micro).  All it did was assign a unique 12-digit number to every “customer”, kept a running tally (in tens of dollars, rounded down) of how much they purchased in a 48-hour period, and had a “bad customer” flag.  And then, I did something back then that today seems… prescient.

The “bad customer” flag was actually one byte in one version, later two.  It started out just being a “if this is present, decline the check” flag.  I then wrote a quick little routine that allowed for four “check customer” states: bad, approve for amount of purchase, approve for cash back, approve for cash only.  Then, somewhere along the line, I got a crazy idea: I added a “customer type” series of bits.  I envisioned initially four customer types: household, commercial, employee, and one I called “geezer”, which in my (then) 14-year-old mind I can interpet to mean “honored citizen” in our modern politically correct vernacular.

The last version of the program I edited took an interesting turn.  I can’t rightly say where I got this idea, but I apparently added a second byte to the field, and added a flag I called in a REM statement “alcoholic”.  In digging through the text file notes on the disk, here was my thinking:

Interesting idea: since the cashier is typing an approval number into the cash register (and we can cross reference the approval number to the check writer), we can probably write something to scan the cash register data at the end of the day and mark a particular customer if they purchase something specific.. say, for example, they buy a beer we can mark a flag that says “this guy buys booze, let’s send this boozehound some coupons for more booze!”  We can write flags for specific department keys or even specific items, and then set the flags at the evening reconcile based upon SKUs purchased or department keys.

I’d be remiss to not point out that this is in 1984.

We already have the makings of a great privacy-violating program right here.  This was on a primitive 8-bit microcomputer with dodgy disk hardware, a very limited BASIC programming language, and an architecture that was great for playing games, not so much for hard-core data processing.

In contrast, now that I have 30 years of computer science under my belt, and much more knowledge of what was available to a regional grocery store chain in 1984; I can see that this would have been trivial to implement using an IBM minicomputer (or, more likely, one of the clones made by NCR and the like) and the COBOL programming language.  It is likely that a minicomputer would have already been driving the cash registers: this is when bar-code scanning at the supermarket was now universal, and many of those point-of-sale systems were driven by some variant of that hardware.  Based upon my memory, I even think the “prototype” that got me thinking about this in 1984 was NCR cash registers.

Recently, a lot of people in the upper echelons of companies like Facebook, Google, and (the former) Sun Microsystems have made statements that all come down to “privacy is irrelevant.”  Looking back at what a kid with a C-64 was able to envision 25 years ago, I now totally understand what those words mean.

Okay, so you can try to live your life without rewards cards, frequent flyer programs, and no Facebook page.  In the end, however, you’re still trackable.

I recently had a conversation with a friend-of-a-friend who works for a regional retailer here in the Pacific Northwest (NOTE: not the aforementioned Fred Meyer).  I won’t mention them by name.  This retailer has a small “frequent shopper” rewards program, and also maintains a pretty impressive customer database and one wicked-cool data warehouse.  In their data warehouse, they can call up any transaction on any day anywhere in the chain in the past 10 years.  If they paid by check, there’s an image of the check.  If they paid by credit card, there’s the signature.  Every part of the transaction was captured.

What I didn’t expect was how much of the data was further mined beyond just what was on the surface.  He then showed me a pilot project that they’ve been working on that is being driven both by the marketing department and the buyers (the people who choose what products the store carries).  What they showed me proves that “privacy is irrelevant.”

They euphemistically call it ‘anonymous capture.’  What ‘anonymous capture’ does is to try to find patterns in non-loyalty transactions that allow them to identify individual customers and their buying habits without having loyalty data.  They claim that as many as 40% of these “anonymous transactions” can actually be identified to individual customers, and by closely analyzing the transactions they can collect the demographics information they are looking for without the loyalty program.

A lot of the way this system actually works is a closely guarded corporate secret.  But it’s all based on the fact that humans are amazingly predictable creatures.

He shows me the purchases of one particular anonymous customer.  He pulls up ten receipts over a two-month period, and explains which items on the receipts probably triggered the algorithm and why.  The algorithm said that these ten purchases are likely the same person: female, married, 30-45 years old, 1 or 2 children, upper-middle class income.  He then pulls a file folder out of his desk drawer of photos from the store surveillance cameras, taken at the time and date of the transactions.

Guess what?  They’re indeed all the same woman.  And in one or two of the stills, you can clearly see her two tweener children, making the age, marital status, and income bracket clearly within what the algorithm predicted.

These were cash transactions.  The system had nothing to go on other than the frequency of the purchases, the items purchased, and the times and dates of the transactions.

Then it got disturbing as he said “let’s go further down the rabbit hole.”  Now, granted, this was a demonstration: this was a repeatable result that my friend knew in advance would work.   But it is still scary.

He starts a process that mines the historical archives, looking for this “profiled customer” to see if he can ever find a name.  Sure enough, at a different store in the chain there was a debit card purchase from this same “customer” (according to the purchase profile), and it was confirmed by looking at store surveillance cameras.  The system predicted a lot more about this person at this point: once you confirmed the link in the software, the system now predicted that she worked near store #2’s location, and that she probably worked in health care.

Friend then showed me a couple of other printouts he had in the file: a Facebook page for the person (likely found by name) that clearly demonstrated these additional facts were true.

One customer, who never filled out a “rewards card application”, but has now been identified just as granularly as if she had handed this chain her Facebook page and said “go nuts.”

“But,” I hear you say, “we had to have a human involved!  Surely, that makes it not practical!”

Nope.  This was just done for this one customer (well, I’d gather, for a statistically relevant subset of customers) to “prove” the system “worked,” or more likely, to get a feel for how frequently the system “didn’t work.”

And that’s where things get a little creepy.  The system works, 100%, for gathering the data they need.

See, all they care about is the fact that this woman’s purchases give them an idea of what a 30-45 year old woman with a moderate income and two kids buys from their store.  To a large degree, even if the woman wasn’t the exact same identifiable woman with a Facebook profile it wouldn’t matter.  They’re looking for the trend, the mean.  The individual doesn’t matter.

And that’s why “creepy drugstore privacy” is a red herring.  Privacy advocates holler about their personal privacy, and they’re thinking that loyalty card programs care about capturing data about the individual. They probably couldn’t care less about you: they only want to know enough about you to figure out what bucket to put you in, and to make sense of your purchase data relevant to that bucket.

At the end of the day, there’s a huge upside to you, the consumer, of all this data mining.  I purchase probably 80% of the things I need at Fred Meyer.  I buy most of my groceries, a lot of my clothing, and all of my medicines.  I purchase the majority of my fuel from Fred Meyer stations now that I live near one.  I buy a small percentage of my media and electronics from there, but enough to give a reasonably clear picture of my entertainment habits.  From this, Uncle Freddy has a pretty clear profile of who I am and what demographics I’m in.  They probably know I’m single and male.  They know from my address I live in a modest apartment complex in a middle-income part of town.  They can probably surmise my income based upon the amount of money I spend in their store, and even what things I buy.  And my fuel purchases (mid-grade unleaded and diesel) gives them some idea that I own two cars, and they could probably accurately determine that one of them is older and/or an import.  They can probably also guess from my purchases in the Euro-food aisle (a unique feature at my Freddy’s that isn’t present at a lot of their stores) that I’m either a gourmand or of central European ancestry (and they’d be wrong there, but how wrong really?).

Point is in how this data is used.  From this data, they have a pretty clear picture of what Fred Meyer needs to do to keep my business.  Or, not keep it, if I’m not a desirable customer.  They can collect all this data from all the customers of their stores, and get a precise laser-guided missile of products to land at the store so that they have what I need at a price I’ll pay, and (perhaps more importantly) nothing I won’t buy.  Shelf space is expensive, demographics are cheap.

There’s a local legend that Fred Meyer (the man) offered to pay parking tickets for anybody who got one while shopping at his downtown store: all they needed to do was turn in the ticket at the Customer Service counter with their sales receipt and they’d be cheerfully refunded.  Meanwhile, he collected all the tickets and discovered exactly WHERE his customers were coming from, and how much they were spending at his store when they came.  Using this data, he opened a store in Portland’s Hollywood district, and became one of the Pacific Northwest’s retail success stories.

In the end, isn’t that a benefit to me?  There are downsides (and that’s a whole different discussion), but in the end, the store is there to serve me the customer.

If Fred Meyer can use the data that I’m diabetic and love chocolate to ensure that they carry more sugar-free chocolate bars, they can have that data.  Mine away, good merchant, mine away.

*: There is a system where you can load coupons onto your Rewards card and you will get the preferred pricing at checkout. At the moment, this feature seems under-marketed: it seems more like a perk for getting you to check the website than a feature of the Rewards card program, but it remains to be seen how aggressively they will market this in the future..

Why “Worse is Better” .. a point many pundits miss

The old teeth gnashing about the prevalence of “good enough” technology is making the rounds again, for some reason. This is an issue that comes up from time to time in the tech world, and it’s always an interesting discussion.

It’s no secret that I’m on the side of “Worse is (often) Better”. I’ve ranted repeatedly about this both in person and in various online forums. I’ve talked about “good enough often is” so many times with colleagues and the like I’m sick of even having the argument anymore.

But the biggest reason why “good enough often is” can be summed up by the reasons why mp3s became the success they are today. To a trained ear, the format has some limitations, and even my crappy hearing can sometimes tell the difference. It certainly is inferior to the technical quality of the average CD.

However, in my world I’m never in a position to actually HEAR the difference unless I’m listening for it. Most of my music listening takes place either in transit from place to place (be it by car, bus/train, or other conveyance), or as background in my home. In either place, I’m in an “imperfect environment” anyway, so “good enough” is just that. Even if I had lossless files playing on a THX-certified player with a $300 headset, I’d still be in a noisy environment, with the 60db of traffic noise around me dulling my low-frequency hearing into oblivion.

“Good enough is” precisely because most of the time we’re not in a laboratory. Most human beings spend their days in environments (be they work or play) that are never going to be “perfect listening rooms”, so using an audio format that is lossy doesn’t matter.

You can look at every other situation were “Worse is Better” and come to the same conclusion. Large laptops (“desktop replacements”) are not as powerful and have inferior displays to desktop machines, but are more portable.  Netbooks are desirable over than large laptops to some, precisely because a large laptop is cumbersome to balance on your knee on the bus, even though netbooks are typically slower and have inferior ergonomics than larger laptops: tablets are even “better/worse”, as are smartphones. Monoaural audio devices like Bluetooth headsets often have slightly better range and are not insignificantly cheaper than their stereo counterparts, even though the monoaural Bluetooth profile offers less fidelity.

The trick is finding the tipping point where worse gets better. There’s a saying in the photography community that says “the best camera is the one you have when the shot appears,” an axiom that proves how wrong I was about smartphone cameras (synopsis of that opinion: they’re shite, always will be, and therefore worthless). Even the crappy camera on my original Palm Treo 650 (“1.2 megapixels”, but that makes it sound better than it really was) was “the one I had when the shot appears” in more than one occasion. Flipping through iPhoto I find a lot of really good pictures I’ve taken with whatever camera I happen to have in my hands.. which usually is a smartphone. Meanwhile, my $1200 digital SLR kit sits collecting dust in my closet.

Are the photos technically inferior to what I can do with the digital SLR? Most certainly. I can complain all day about the “noise” in the camera phone photos, the sloppy focus, the lack of depth of field, and even the quantization errors in the often sloppy JPEG encoding. But I have the shot, where I wouldn’t have the shot if I had to find my DSLR, take it out, warm it up, and shoot.

But the greater point? I have to “switch gears” to even notice the imperfections in the photos. After they’ve been printed on my (“good enough”) inkjet printer and housed in a small frame, I still get a lot of enjoyment out of many of the photos I’ve taken of events and loved ones with.. well, quite shitty cameras. Old 110 film was “good enough” for many in the 70’s, even though it was inferior in most ways to 126 film (and not to mention crap compared to 35mm).

I guess in this regard I should have looked to my own career path as an example, and I didn’t.  VoIP, be it Skype or whatever, is a great example of how “worse is better” has played out.  The “old telephone network” was engineered for robustness.  In our post-Bell System world, we view it as way over-engineered.  VoIP is, in many ways, way worse.  The audio quality can be inferior, it requires a reasonably well engineered network (or at minimum “over-engineered” bandwidth) (contrast that to conventional dialtone, which works at insane distances over very poor quality cable), and is very ‘portable’.  Oh, and because of a lot of competition in the sphere and the economics of the product, essentially free.

“Worse is better” only because the people who define “worst” as solely being some artificial (and often just perceived) advantage a legacy technology has.  Vinyl records are far inferior at technical sound reproduction than any digital method with a reasonable sample rate, period.  End of story.  There’s no arguing that from a purely scientific stance.  Even high bitrate lossy codecs can provide more accurate sound reproduction than vinyl, at a significantly reduced “cost” and at lower maintenance.

Vinyl may “sound better” (and I’d argue that as well), but it isn’t technically superior in any scientifically measurable way.  The irony: those who think that presence is a desirable trait in audio (mostly because they don’t have any high-frequency hearing anymore) and don’t like “brilliance” think vinyl is subjectively superior to both CDs and MP3s.  But that’s only because they’re applying the “worse is better” ideal.  Poor fidelity reproduction is better than precisely, scientifically engineered reproduction.

And that’s the point.  The point is that the word “worst” is misapplied.  It’s not really worse.  It’s just the rules of what’s required is redefined by each generation of user.  Modern music listeners are willing to sacrifice a small amount of fidelity for considerably more portability and accessibility.   Music isn’t something they listen to in their living room turned listening room.  It’s become a part of their daily life.   Many non-geeks now have digital music libraries that far exceed even what an audiophile would have had 40 years ago, in both quantity of “albums” and the genres it spans.

“Survival of the fittest” is a much better way of wording “worse is better.”  Fitness is defined by the environment: smarter but ugly can often win over dumb and beautiful.

FlowchartA little bit of a side rant here on what “steampunk” means.

Before I start, let me just say that I don’t have a problem with any of what I’m about to piss on.  I love this kind of genre play, and I think that a lot of the artwork and stuff created by the many talented artists in Steampunk really kick ass.

However, I think something needs to be said about “keeping it real” in the interests of fairness.

The way I’ve always understood “Steampunk”, it’s a genre based on an alternative historical timeline that assumes we never transitioned from steam power to the internal combustion engine, for whatever reason (and the reasons are quite varied and really unimportant).  There’s usually some history rewritten as a result: Charles Babbage actually built his Difference Engine (and it is used to “power” much of society), Nikola Tesla was successful in his 1899 Colorado Springs Experiments, some (not experienced in our reality) natural disaster had far reaching consequences,  and/or the popular science-fiction of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells became true as written.

In short, there’s a fairly specific time period that “Steampunk” looks like it is trying to emulate: that of the late Victorian era.  In fact, most of the seminal works of Steampunk seem to want to wrap themselves in the Romanticism of that era, regardless of how far forward they put themselves in the timeline (see: a few Doctor Who episodes I can name: in fact, the present image of the TARDIS is, itself, very “Steampunk” in character).

Yet, at the same time, it seems that a lot of us in the Steampunk-admiring fandom forget the world that we’re actually supposed to be living in.  We forget that “Metropolis” (the 1927 Fritz Lang silent film) is probably, at best, in Steampunk’s very near future, but probably not in the present.  I see Art Deco influences up-played, Art Nouveau downplayed.  An excellent example of some of this can be seen here at BuzzFeed: some of the artwork is excellent, but is it really Steampunk?  Are silent films even technically “Steampunk”?

I’d venture to guess, if I understand the timeline correctly, that the cinema didn’t really take hold until the early 1900’s at best.. and it wasn’t until the 1910’s that it really caught on.  As I understood it, “the new movies” were largely shown in burlesque (and the later Vaudeville) houses, and rarely as stand-alone features until well into the 1910’s, if not even the early ’20s.  Okay, I’m willing to accept some “Steaming” of the tech to make it work, and the invention of the motion picture is inevitable.. but given that it requires the production of celluloid film in enough quantities to shoot miles of the stuff, it’s largely a product of the early 20th Century, and of the petroleum revolution that ends the Steam Age in our reality.

“Steampunk” is more ferrotype, less celluloid.

tintype of the author and a female friend

Tintype of feedle and Norma, SteamCon 2010

At SteamCon II this year, I observed something that kind-of made me sad as somebody who’s in this fandom for the history.  A wonderful Gentleman was doing ferrotypes, even though conditions for the same frankly sucked.  He was using period techniques, even using a period camera (although his plates were aluminum and not “japanned iron”).   He even had a wonderful cart, not unlike what you would have seen in a country fairground of the era: he completely had the “travelling photographer” thing down as you would expect to see circa 1885.  The sad part: he was not promoted at all by the convention (in fact, they seemed to kick him to the curb at the earliest opportunity when a vendor complained about the odor), and eventually was relegated to a dark corner of the hotel’s atrium out in front of his room.

Why was this guy not “front and center”?  I had two ferrotypes made, and they are something I will cherish about my SteamCon experience.  This is the sort of thing we should be embracing as “Steampunks”.  (Side note: He’s in Salem, and deserves your business:

Maybe my experience as a Renaissance Fair rat comes through a little strongly here.  I’ve already ranted a bit about the tendency towards poor hat etiquette.  I have a whole laundry list of complaints, quite honestly.. but this is at the center of many of them.

This is the Victorian era, people.  We don’t have to follow everything down to the letter (goddess knows the racism and sexual repression alone is something we could do without), but at least let’s try to maintain the class, lustre, and genteel-ness of the era we love.  To throw that away is to miss the greater point of the Age of Steam, and turns us all into that flowchart above.  Does it have gears?  No, guess I better add some more…

Hat etiquette

Does nobody understand proper hat etiquette anymore?

Okay, I know this is a convention, and people are dressed in costumes. However, we’re supposed to be in the Victorian age (or at least in a retro-future world rooted in Victorian ideals). We’re supposed to act that way.

The biggest violations? Last night at the Cabaret. It’s theatre, dammit: MEN ARE SUPPOSED TO REMOVE THEIR HATS WHEN IN A THEATRE. Or a restaurant. Or, for that matter, any “intimate” interior space (generally speaking, one can leave their hat on in corridors and large open indoor spaces, such as a lobby or arcade). In addition to the “remove your hats when you are indoors” rule, it’s also polite to those who are sitting behind you.

Another big violation: the “lady in a lift” rule. If you are in an elevator and a lady boards, take it off, dammit.

Lastly, and this is another one that gets under my skin, is failing to remove your hat at the dining table. And for crying out loud, when you do remove your hat, you don’t put it on the table.

Come on, people. We’re supposed to be demonstrating ideals from a more “enlightened” and gentler age. Let’s act like it by using the manners incumbent on the era we’re playing.

This is the last post I expected to make

This post has been written, posted, and edited on an Apple iPad.

For a lot of people I know, that isn’t very remarkable. For me, it’s a pretty giant leap. I’ve never been a huge fan of the Apple iPhone and the iPod touch. Yes, I had an iPod touch that I used on a fairly regular basis, but I missed the simplicity of the older iPod interface, and I felt that the additional features of the touch interface really didn’t add much more compared to what it took away.

Further, I’m also not a huge fan of the Apple “We Control All You Will See and Hear” attitude regarding the App Store and its bizarre policies that nobody really ever seems to totally understand completely. With more weird rules, exceptions, and policy interpretations it seems more complicated (and considerably less transparent) than the US tax code.

However, a client gave me the opportunity to get an iPad at their expense, so I figured why the hell not.

And, I now totally understand what the fuss is about.

I’ve been a big fan of tablets for quite a while. Many of you will remember the now seemingly antique “Windows for Pens” tablets I tinkered with in the past. A few of you will remember my beloved Fujitsu tablet laptop, which even after having gotten a ton of cash for it, I still miss.

But once again, Apple has demonstrated that they “get it”. The iPad is exactly what I personally have been waiting for in a tablet computer. Decent battery life, access to media on-the-go, and enough horsepower and applications to actually be useful.

It isn’t a replacement for my laptop.. Or for that matter even my netbook. It also demonstrates to me why the iPhone will probably never be my preferred handheld platform, either. There’s a lot I don’t like about it.. but the hardware is top notch, and everything is well put together on the software side as well.

And Netflix runs on it. That is quite simply made of awesome.

IN CONGRESS, July 4 1776, The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America

When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security. — Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.

He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.

He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.

He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.

He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their Public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.

He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.

He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected, whereby the Legislative Powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining in the mean time exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within.

He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.

He has obstructed the Administration of Justice by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary Powers.

He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.

He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people and eat out their substance.

He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.

He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil Power.

He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation:

For quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:

For protecting them, by a mock Trial from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:

For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world:

For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent:

For depriving us in many cases, of the benefit of Trial by Jury:

For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences:

For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies

For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments:

For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.

He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.

He has plundered our seas, ravaged our coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.

He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation, and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & Perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.

He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.

He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.

In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince, whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.

Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our British brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.

We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these united Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States, that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. — And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.

— John Hancock

New Hampshire:
Josiah Bartlett, William Whipple, Matthew Thornton

John Hancock, Samuel Adams, John Adams, Robert Treat Paine, Elbridge Gerry

Rhode Island:
Stephen Hopkins, William Ellery

Roger Sherman, Samuel Huntington, William Williams, Oliver Wolcott

New York:
William Floyd, Philip Livingston, Francis Lewis, Lewis Morris

New Jersey:
Richard Stockton, John Witherspoon, Francis Hopkinson, John Hart, Abraham Clark

Robert Morris, Benjamin Rush, Benjamin Franklin, John Morton, George Clymer, James Smith, George Taylor, James Wilson, George Ross

Caesar Rodney, George Read, Thomas McKean

Samuel Chase, William Paca, Thomas Stone, Charles Carroll of Carrollton

George Wythe, Richard Henry Lee, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Harrison, Thomas Nelson, Jr., Francis Lightfoot Lee, Carter Braxton

North Carolina:
William Hooper, Joseph Hewes, John Penn

South Carolina:
Edward Rutledge, Thomas Heyward, Jr., Thomas Lynch, Jr., Arthur Middleton

Button Gwinnett, Lyman Hall, George Walton

Heading rapidly towards obsolescence…

As a lot of you know, I’ve been playing with the phone since I was a child.. and that’s now multiple lifetimes in Internet time. I remember the cutting of crossbar offices to electronic, and the cutting of electronic switches to digital. I’ve seen “mobile phones” go from clunky two-way radio style devices to (now) 4G data handsets.

I would have never thought it would have come to the point it is at now.

As part of an upcoming move, I’ve been pricing my options. Where I’m moving, it looks like I have three choices: the incumbent phone company, the cable company, and the WiMax provider. So, I go to the web sites of the three companies to shop.

First, we’ll talk to the WiMax provider. The website shows me a coverage map, and it looks like I’m in good coverage, but I have some concerns because I’m not in GREAT coverage. However, I’m able to get the pricing and coverage information quickly and efficiently. A big A+ here. Of course, it’s just Internet and phone only (no TV), but the price looks right.

Then I go to the cable company’s website. It’s a little messy at first, because I already have service with them at my present address, and they don’t seem to want to price out my options for the new address. I load up Chrome’s “Incognito” mode, and it all works great. Boy, there’s a lot of packages, and the packages with Internet included area little vague at first what the available speed options are. But, with a little bit of bouncing between the individual unbundled service information page and the bundles, I’m able to figure out that a 15 down 3 up package with TV and an unlimited phone is around $100 on a promo, and the cost after the promo is clearly spelled out and easy to understand. An “A” here, and that’s only because it would have been nice if the bundles made it clearer what tier of Internet service was included without having to bounce between screens.

Then, I tried to check with the incumbent telephone company.

For starters, the website wouldn’t even load. Okay, I think, maybe Comcast is messing with the website (hehehe, “net neutrality” anyone?). So, I fire up the wireless modem and try that. Still no dice. I can get the basic information screens, but they don’t have any pricing and availability for the specific area I’m interested in. This is concerning for me, because where I’m considering moving to (Oregon City) there’s no guarantee that anything will be available. When typing in the address of the apartment, the website just returns a blank screen, an error, or just returns me to the screen with vague pricing and no specifics.

Okay, maybe their website was down when I tried. And sure enough, this afternoon the website SEEMS to load.. but there’s nowhere near the clarity of information present that the cable company and the WiMax provider offers. I want a package with Internet and phone service, no TV really needed, preferably something in the 8-15 Mb/s down range. The best I can figure out is that unlimited phone is $35/mo and that there is some kind of $14.95/month promotional price on high speed Internet, up to 7 Mb/s down. But I’m still not sure what the price on the high-speed is after the end of the promotion, nor am I clear if there’s any higher speed options available (and it’s worth noting that they DO advertise 20 Mb/s speeds in this market generically). They’d love to have me talk to an agent to give me more information!

I wanted to root for the phone company. I gave them a fighting chance to give me the information I needed in the format their competitors do, and in a way that saves me time. This is information services we’re talking about here, folks. If there ever was a product that you should be able to sell over the web it’s.. well, the web, dammit. Your competitors websites all would have let me order the services right then and there: just a credit card entry away.

The capper is when same phone company tried to engage me on Twitter after I posted a one-liner about the site not working. If I had time to “talk to an agent” about my needs, if I wanted to, they were merely a phone call away. That’s not what I wanted. I wanted the information on the web in a clear, concise format like both your competitors do.

After all, you’re an Internet provider now, right?