Saturday, November 29, 2008

Unit Pricing Conspiracy

I’ve been a big fan of the unit pricing labels that were introduced in US supermarkets about 30 years ago. However, sometimes retailers deliberately post this information in obscure measurements. For example, toilet paper is often shown with the price per square foot, rather than the price per sheet, forcing consumers to do more complex math to figure out the best deal. Most people will simply buy the lowest cost package.

The thing that bothers me about unit pricing labels is whether or not I can trust them. Suppose, for example, that an unscrupulous retailer got a great deal on a premium brand of macaroni, and bought more of it than will fit on the shelves. It has to be sold quickly to clear out the excess stock in the back of the store before the fire marshal drops by and discovers that it’s stacked in front of the fire exit.

So the retailer fraudulently lowers the unit cost of the premium macaroni, even though the package cost is properly displayed. Consumers comparing the unit prices will buy the product with lower unit cost, not bothering to check the math. Of course I had no evidence to prove that such shenanigans take place. Until yesterday.

In my local major chain supermarket, I discovered two products, side by side: Scotch Brite Multi Purpose Scrub Sponges and Scotch Brite Heavy Duty Scrub Sponges. Each product was sold in a package containing three sponges. The package cost was identical for each product - $2.89.

I’m sorry about the poor quality of these photos, but as you can see if you look closely, the unit cost on each product is different: 96.33 cents (correct) for the Multi Purpose and 72.25 cents (wrong) for the Heavy Duty.



I suppose it could be a simple mistake. After all, the Heavy Duty sponges would cost 72.25 cents apiece if there were four in a package, so maybe somebody just made a keystroke error. But it’s also possible that the fire exits are blocked with Heavy Duty sponges.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Time of the Signs

Everywhere I go these days, it seems as though I’m overwhelmed by signage. It’s everywhere. Some people might claim that this is a testimony to the high literacy rate in this country, but it seems to me that it’s often a testimony to the high ignorance factor, or a new form of tyranny by proxy.

One of my least favorite signs are the legitimate-looking Stop signs that are peppered throughout parking lots. Those signs are on private property; they weren’t erected by the city. You can’t get a ticket for blasting through one of them. But there they are, erected with good intentions, but nonetheless bearing as much official weight as those tin Detective badges you can order from the back of a comic book.

Some signs are just fun to read. Here’s one from the Orange County Courthouse in Orlando:


Seriously? Tape measures? Why are tape measures forbidden?

Here’s a sign from a local burger joint:


I suppose they didn’t intend to imply that their food is equivalent to dog food.

In another burger joint, this stern sign was posted on the soft drink dispenser:


Do people really save their cups and come in day after day expecting continuous refills of Diet Sprite? Apparently it’s a real problem at this place.

Sometimes, clever smartass kids modify otherwise routine signs. In Florida, the 7-Eleven convenience stores sell hot dogs, which you can enhance using the chili and cheese machines. The cheese dispenser oozes toothpaste-like streams of yellow goo, and the chili dispenser sputters out a disgusting lumpy brown glop. Both of these products distract you from the probability that the hot dog itself is made from undesirable body parts. In the bathroom, I found this sign:


You can just make out the graffiti at the bottom that reads, “They clog the chili dispenser.”

This sign posted at the payment window of the service department at a local car dealership contains a subtle political message:


In other words, “It’s not our fault; it’s the bozos YOU elected.”

At the movie theatre, I now see this sign on the way in:


Cell phones have become the new boom boxes.

Obsession with cleanliness is now turning bathrooms into signage hell. At one company I worked for, a sign was posted on the back of every stall door informing us that it was polite and considerate to flush the toilet. In public bathrooms where food is served, you often see the “Employees must wash hands” sign. But in this bathroom, they had three of them:


Apparently, you can overcome illiteracy through sheer volume.

If you’re a true germophobe, this new technological development will please you: the no-touch bathroom door:


Simply wave your hand in front of the sensor and the door opens all by itself. Then you can return to your table and eat your meal that was prepared by a cook who didn’t wash his hands.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The Bush Recession: Part 2

When confronted by the possibility of a long siege, people hoard things. As hurricanes approach the coast of Florida, grocery stores run out of bread, milk and other staples. Filling stations run out of gas. ATMs run out of cash. It’s natural human behavior.

Tomorrow I’ll be 61 years old. Like most people my age, I’m troubled by a number of typical age-related ailments, though none of them are life-threatening, thank goodness. I have to take several medications every day to control my symptoms. The problem is, I lost my medical insurance at the end of last month.

All of these medications are expensive. But they’re absurdly expensive if you don’t have medical insurance. Yes, I can pay for COBRA coverage, but if there’s one thing more absurdly expensive than my medications, it’s COBRA coverage. I have 62 days to elect whether to pay for COBRA insurance or not. I’m hoping it won’t be necessary, because I currently have no reliable source of income.

Once I realized I was going to lose my medical insurance, I went to my doctor and asked for a prescription for 90 days’ worth of my meds. But some weird law prevents me from purchasing a 90-day supply of these medications at my local pharmacy. Instead, the order has to be delivered by mail, from the approved mail-order fulfillment center. My doctor graciously offered to fax the information to the fulfillment center.

Weeks later, I still had not received the meds, so I called the fulfillment center. They told me that the form submitted by my doctor’s office was incorrect, and they had faxed back the correct form the same day. My doctor’s office claims they never received a return fax from the fulfillment center. Somebody’s lying, and in the meantime, my insurance coverage ended.

Today, I ran out of one of my medications. I can’t afford to buy it at normal retail prices.

In this country, medical patents expire in 17 or 20 years, depending on whether the patent was filed prior to 1995. When a pharmaceutical company invests R&D capital in a new medication, they have every right to enjoy patent protection to recover those costs and earn a handsome profit. Once the patent expires, any company can make the drug and prices drop as the companies are forced to compete in the marketplace. This mechanism serves as encouragement for those companies to invest their patent-protected pricing profit in further R&D on new medications, and the cycle continues. But there’s a problem.

Pharmaceutical companies invest 250% more on the marketing of new drugs than they spend developing them. Recovering these costs drives the costs of these drugs up even further. Worse, when a popular drug is reaching the end of its patent protection, pharmaceutical companies invest those precious R&D funds to create a variation on the formulation that differs by some insignificant amount. They then declare this to be a new drug and invest huge amounts of those R&D funds on marketing, intended to convince doctors to prescribe it in place of the older, perfectly suitable drug.

So instead of encouraging the development of new, effective drugs, the system encourages pharmaceutical companies to game the system, putting old drugs in new packages and charging ruinous prices for them. Why work on a new problem with no guarantee of success, when you can repackage an old solution and sell it as a new solution without competition?

There are a lot of things wrong with the American system of health care and medical insurance. Our new president has promised to look into it. I hope he looks at it pretty quickly. I don’t feel very well.

Thursday, November 6, 2008


My wife works in an elementary school, and like any elementary school, the children work on projects that are often put on display in the hallways. Every time I visit, I find something amusing hanging on the walls. Today, I was creeped out.

The halls were hung with effigies of American Presidents, created in a variety of media by 4th grade kids. One of the most popular (and eerie) methods was to stuff a real business suit and then glue some kind of head on it.

Hallway of Effigies

All I could think about was that in America such images aren’t burned in the streets as often as they are in other countries.

Here’s Andrew Jackson. Apparently, the student read somewhere that he had “silver hair.” So Old Hickory’s image was graced with an aluminum-foil helmet, which probably helps shut out the voices in his head.


Teddy Roosevelt is resplendent in a cowboy outfit. But viewed from the side, it’s clear he’s just an empty hat:



This is Groucho Roosevelt, Teddy’s comedian brother, who looks worried about the company he’s keeping:


Tricky Dick Nixon looks positively cartoonish, slinking around the corner:


I was amused by this image of JFK, who appears to have been thrown up against the wall by juvenile delinquents who want his lunch money:


Here’s George W. Bush, performing “Burning Down the House:”


My favorite was Bill Clinton. Here’s the full-length view, drawn in crayon on a large piece of cardboard:


Here’s his well-polished trademark smile:


But the diligent student who produced this image included one very important detail.


In my opinion, this is almost a good likeness of our 42nd president. Close, but no cigar.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

The Bush Recession: Part 1

On the 21st of last month I was laid off from my job, right at the start of the worst economic conditions to hit this country since the Reagan Recession of 1990. I’ve been too depressed to write about it until now.


Back in March, I left a job that I had held for 10 years, only to be let go from my “new” job 7 months later. This can be attributed to two primary factors: The rotten economy, which was precipitated by a global banking crisis, and slipshod management at my new company.

The banking crisis hit close to home because I work in the banking software industry. It’s not surprising that banks and their suppliers are hitting the wall. Whole financial empires are crumbling, exposing the shaky foundations of what we believed to be our most stable institutions. It’s clear that the entire mess was avoidable, but because of inadequate controls on trading instruments, the whole system burst like an infected pimple.

The company I joined managed to attract me through a combination of excellent benefits and a gross misrepresentation of the job. It seems the company had partnered up with another company on a 5-year project. They were going to convert a software product that had been written in Spanish for the Spanish market to English, and adapted for use in markets all over the world. I was assured that I would be working on documentation using XML, for Web publication – something I’d been dying to do in my previous job.

Once I started working, the sad truth was revealed. The partners would be working in XML, but not me. The product was currently installed at one customer site in Thailand, so my supervisor told me that the quality of my work didn’t really matter, since none of them speak English anyway. The job was all about meeting contracted deliverables, not about achievement. It was like working on a loading dock.

Worse, there was barely enough work to keep one competent person busy, and we had two people dividing up the work. If I had questions or problems, nobody knew the answers, nobody knew who might have the answers, and if by some miracle I found someone with the answers, they were far too busy or important to provide the answers. It took six months for the company to arrange an Internet meeting for someone in India to train us on the product we were writing about.

I felt angered and betrayed. All along I thought I had been hired for my knowledge and experience, only to discover that my supervisor had been too busy and important to bother sifting candidates. I was just one of the first warm bodies to apply for the job, so they told me what I wanted to hear, plunked me down at a desk and abandoned me.

In all fairness, my previous employer (another banking software company) went through a round of layoffs also, and there’s no guarantee I would have made the cut. But had I stayed, I would have been entitled to almost 5 months of severance pay. My new job offered me one week of severance for my 7 months of service.

The elections are going to play a huge role in the recovery of the American economy. The financial system runs on three elements: Fear, Greed and Faith. Fear puts the market into reverse, Greed puts the market into drive, and Faith is the fuel that keeps the money moving.

We’re teetering on the brink of a disaster, and whoever wins the presidency must restore Faith. Personally, I feel this can only be achieved by introducing legislation for new, thorough regulatory oversight. Whatever you believe, get out and vote on Tuesday.

Oh, and let me know if you hear of any open jobs. There's a 7-Eleven application sitting on my kitchen table. It's supposed to be for my daughter, but it's looking pretty attractive right about now.