Saturday, November 29, 2008

Tis the season for out-of-control shoppers

The Christmas shopping season kicked off with three deaths in two separate incidents at stores holding early-morning sales on Black Friday. Merry Christmas, everyone!
A worker at the Wal-Mart store in Valley Stream, N.Y., was trampled to death by out-of-control shoppers who broke down the doors at a 5 a.m. sale. Other workers were injured as they tried to rescue the man. Shoppers stepped over the victim on the ground and streamed into the store. Customers shouted angrily and kept shopping when store officials told them the store was closing because of the death, the Associated Press reported.
At the Toys “R” Us in Palm Desert, Calif., shoppers ran for cover when two men shot and killed each other in the store, press reports said. Joy to the world! (Photos by AP, see links.)
Last year, there were only sporadic conflicts and violence among shoppers on Black Friday, according to Cnet. But in 2006, there were numerous reports of crowds getting violent at post-Thanksgiving sales.
Good news for shoppers who didn’t get the big deals on Friday: Many stores are planning doorbuster sales on Saturday too.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Black Friday deals could mean a blue Christmas

Retailers have baited their hooks with tempting after-Thanksgiving sales, but the question is whether consumers will bite.
With Americans worried about the economy, their investments, home values and jobs, many aren’t in much of a buying mood this holiday season. But stores like Best Buy and Wal-Mart hope to change their minds with one word: doorbuster.
Doorbusters are those super low-priced items, available in limited quantities, at early-bird sales. They get their name from the mobs of crazed shoppers who practically bust down doors to get inside a store to grab bargains when it opens.
Here’s a snapshot of what’s hot in electronics at this year’s early-bird doorbuster sales on Black Friday, the traditional kickoff to the annual Christmas shopping season:
  • Blu-ray Disc players and movies: With Blu-ray Disc now established as the high-definition successor to the DVD, consumer electronics manufacturers and Hollywood studios are driving down prices to encourage mass market adoption of the blue-laser format. Wal-Mart is selling a Magnavox Blu-ray Disc player on Black Friday for $128. (A year ago, the cheapest Blu-ray Disc players were about $300.) Wal-Mart also is selling a Samsung Blu-ray player for $199. Plus, the discount chain is selling several Blu-ray movies for $15 each, including “Iron Man” and “Transformers.” (Blu-ray Disc movies usually cost $20 to $40.)
  • HDTVs: Retailers are sitting on a glut of flat-panel LCD and plasma high-definition televisions ordered before the economy turned south. Add to that struggling and bankrupt retailers like Circuit City and Tweeter liquidating inventory and forcing other retailers to drop prices to stay competitive. For more details, read the article in Investor’s Business Daily. Wal-Mart is selling a Samsung 50-inch plasma HDTV for $798 and a Polaroid 42-inch widescreen 1080p LCD HDTV for $598.
  • Portable GPS navigation systems: Faced with competition from GPS-enabled smart phones and factory-installed car navigation systems, portable navi device sellers like Garmin and TomTom are breaking the $100 price barrier. Wal-Mart is selling a Garmin Nuvi 200 with 3.5-inch display for $97. RadioShack is offering a TomTom One 125 with a 3.5-inch screen for $99.99.
Low-cost notebook PCs and video game system bundles also are popular doorbuster deals this year.
For more deals, check out:

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

In times of economic gloom, consumers turn to whoopee cushions

Internet audience measurement service comScore came out with its October data the other day and it showed that one of the fastest gaining Web properties was Spencer Gifts. That's right. The same Spencer Gifts that you see selling tacky gag gifts at the mall.
The top gainer by percentage change in unique visitors was, the financial news Web site. That's not surprising given the state of the stock market and the economy. The number of visitors to rose 155% from September to October, reaching 10.6 million visitors.
No. 2 was Spencer Gifts. Its audience rose 144% to 5.1 million unique visitors in October from the previous month. It even beat out, which grew just 59% to 8.5 million visitors during Sen. Obama's historic victory in the presidential election.
Looking for clues to the surge in interest in Spencer Gifts, I checked out its Web site.
I can only surmise that it was some hot gifts that drove the increase in online visitors. Perhaps it was the Insulting Parrot for $14.99. The motion-activated toy bird squawks insults and rude comments to anyone who comes near it. Among the classy quotes: "Polly Want A F*ckin Cracker," "Hey Baby, Show Us Your T*T's!" and "Go F*ck Yourself."
Or maybe it was the Sex Alert Door Hanger for $9.99 or the Beerpong Table for $69.99.
Nah, it was definitely the Insulting Parrot. That's a must-have.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Top 10 worst Christmas songs

Here’s the flipside to my recent list of the top 20 best Christmas songs: the 10 worst. I could’ve done 20, but thought I’d concentrate on the biggest stinkers.
  1. “A Soldier’s Silent Night” (circa 2004) by Ted Berndt

  2. “Santa Baby” (1987) by Madonna

  3. “Frosty the Snowman” (1964) by the Beach Boys

  4. “Little Saint Nick” (1964) by the Beach Boys

  5. “Feliz Navidad” (1970) by Jose Feliciano

  6. “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” (1944), recorded by various artists

  7. “Christmas in Hollis” (1987) by Run-DMC

  8. “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” (1979) by Elmo & Patsy

  9. “The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late)” (1958) by Alvin and the Chipmunks

  10. “Dominick the Donkey” (1960) by Lou Monte
I can’t argue with the sentiment behind “A Soldier’s Silent Night” by Ted Berndt, but it’s stagey, heavy-handed and interminable. I switch radio stations every time this comes on. Father Berndt sounds like a great man (proud Marine and WWII Purple Heart recipient), but I can’t listen to his recording of a soldier’s poem in heavy rotation over the radio. You can read more about the story behind the recording at
The cloying narration reminds me too much of Mason Adams from the old Smucker’s jams TV commercials or worse yet, Garrison Keillor.
Madonna does some things very well – electronic dance music, for example. But she’s one of the worst actresses to get work in the modern age. Her performance of “Santa Baby” is an extension of her lousy acting. She’s playing a character, some kind of spoiled young lady who would exist only in an old movie. Picture a gangster’s moll who works as a stripper, cracks her gum and is dumb as a box of rocks, but sexy hot. Suffice it to say that her rendition of “Santa Baby” is fingernails-on-blackboard grating.
The Beach Boys are responsible for two clinkers from their 1964 Christmas album.
Their version of “Frosty the Snowman” is just plain awful. They try to jazz up the clunky tune with horn flourishes. That’s like spraying Febreze on a skunk.
“Little Saint Nick” is just a lazy reworking of the group’s 1963 hit “Little Deuce Coupe.”
Jose Feliciano’s “Feliz Navidad” is a catchy little diddy, but it’s advertising-jingle deep. It’s just four lines of 20 words repeated over and over and over again.
I put “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” on the list because the conversational duet between a man and a woman gets annoying after repeated listenings. I also like to make the argument, in jest, that the song condones date rape.
The female voice in the song is called “The Mouse” and the male “The Wolf,” according to Wikipedia, the collaborative online encyclopedia. Wikipedia cites Susan Loesser’s “A Most Remarkable Fella: Frank Loesser and the Guys and Dolls in His Life; A Portrait by His Daughter,” a book about the song’s writer.
The lyrics consist of the man attempting to convince the woman to stay with him at the end of a date. He plies her with alcohol. “Well, maybe just a half a drink more,” she sings twice.
At another point, she sings, “Say, what’s in this drink?”
Today the answer might be GHB.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Windows Vista a flop; Numbers tell the story

Microsoft’s Windows Vista operating system, launched commercially in January 2007, is “a flop,” says Janco Associates.
Windows Vista has only 17% of the market for personal computer operating systems after almost 22 months in release. Its predecessor, Windows XP, had garnered 37% market share during the same time period, according to Janco, based in Park City, Utah. See the article and charts in the Nov. 24 print edition of Investor’s Business Daily.
What’s worse, Windows Vista has only 15% of the OS market share of business and enterprise users who browse the Internet.
Vista is proof that large companies can make “huge blunders in technology,” Janco CEO Victor Janulaitis said in a press release. “In the case of Microsoft, they no longer can count on moving users to new products as quickly as they want.”
Windows Vista has been knocked around like a ragdoll by Apple’s Mac advertising campaign. Critics say Vista is slow and bloated and not an improvement over Windows XP. No wonder the seven-year-old Windows XP still has 70% market share.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

‘Dow 30,000 by 2008’? That’s a good one

For the investor in your family, a humorous book for Christmas might lift their spirits. has many, such as “Dow 30,000 by 2008” by Wall Street pundit Robert Zuccaro. Published in December 2001, the book predicted that the Dow Jones Industrial Average would climb to 30,000 and the Nasdaq Composite would exceed 6,000 by the year 2008.
As of Thursday the Dow was at 7,552.29 and the Nasdaq was at 1,316.12.
Not a big enough missed prediction? Then how about “Dow 36,000: The New Strategy for Profiting From the Coming Rise in the Stock Market” by James K. Glassman and Kevin A. Hassett. Published in October 1999, shortly before the dot-com bubble burst, it predicted that the Dow would rise to 36,000 within a few years.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

My top 20 favorite Christmas songs

It’s a truism in print media that readers love lists.
So, in honor of Christmas, here are my top 20 favorite holiday songs this year:
  1. “God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen/We Three Kings” (2004) by the Barenaked Ladies, featuring Sarah McLachlan

  2. “Christmas Canon” (1998) by Trans-Siberian Orchestra

  3. “2000 Miles” (1983) by The Pretenders

  4. “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” (1958) by Brenda Lee

  5. “A Holly Jolly Christmas” (1962) by Burl Ives

  6. “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” (1943) by Bing Crosby

  7. “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” (1944) by Judy Garland

  8. “White Christmas” (1947) by Bing Crosby

  9. “Mele Kalikimaka (Merry Christmas)” (1950) by Bing Crosby & the Andrews Sisters

  10. “Christmas in Killarney” (1951) by Bing Crosby

  11. “Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy” (1977) by Bing Crosby & David Bowie

  12. “Last Christmas” (1984) by Wham!

  13. “All I Want for Christmas Is You” (1994) by Mariah Carey

  14. “Our Love Is Like a Holiday” (2001) by Michael Bolton

  15. “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” (1987) by U2

  16. “Linus & Lucy” (1964) by the Vince Guaraldi Trio for “A Charlie Brown Christmas”

  17. “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” (1987) by John Mellencamp

  18. “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” (2001) by Bruce Springsteen

  19. “Jingle Bell Rock” (1957) by Bobby Helms

  20. “Oi to the World” (1997) by No Doubt

Some thoughts about this mix of picks:
“God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen/We Three Kings” by the Barenaked Ladies and “Christmas Canon” by Trans-Siberian Orchestra are great examples of how songs in the public domain can be reinvented by other artists to great effect. The public can benefit tremendously when works go off copyright and talented artists are free to experiment with them.
“God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen” is an 1827 English traditional song. “We Three Kings” was written by John H. Hopkins Jr. in 1857. “Christmas Canon” is based on Johann Pachelbel’s “Canon in D Major,” written in or around 1680 in Germany.
Not all Christmas songs are cheery and uplifting. Two of my favorites are melancholy: “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”
Also, don’t look down on me for having Wham! and Michael Bolton on this list. Those songs are catchy.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Mommy kissing Santa? No problem. Just keep the gifts coming

The Christmas song “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” presents an interesting ethical dilemma for children.
If the kid singing the song really thinks he saw his mommy kissing Santa, he’s willing to overlook it and not tell his father about the infidelity, apparently so long as he gets some gifts on Christmas morning.
Purists would say it’s a cute song, because little Johnny doesn’t realize that it’s actually his daddy in a Santa suit. And it’s just some innocent kissing, they’d say. After all, the lyrics aren’t: “I saw Mommy Frenching Santa Claus” or “shagging Santa Claus.”
But that’s not the point. The point is this kid doesn’t seem to mind that some other man is kissing his mommy. Yeah, I’m sure it would have been a “laugh” if Daddy had walked in on the two of them, as the lyrics go.
The 1952 song has been covered by many artists over the years (Paul Anka, John Mellencamp, Jessica Simpson and Twisted Sister, to name a few), but only one appears to have had the moral fortitude to do what was right. That performer was Michael Jackson. Singing with the Jackson 5, Jackson tells his brothers, “I did! I really did see Mommy kissing Santa Claus. And I’m gonna tell my dad.”
Way to do what’s right, Michael.

Friday, November 14, 2008

It's beginning to sound a lot like Christmas

Adult contemporary music station WLIT-FM 93.3 in Chicago showed some restraint.
It switched over to its annual 24-hour Christmas music format today (Friday Nov. 14). Last year, it became the Holiday Lite on Nov. 2. That's right, just two days after Halloween.
Given the sorry state of the economy and retail sales, I'm surprised they didn't do it sooner. Hopefully this will help put consumers in a mood to buy.
Personally I like the all-Christmas-music format. I've got my favorites including "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" and "A Holly Jolly Christmas," both written by Johnny Marks, and Mariah Carey's "All I Want for Christmas Is You."
Does that music put me in a buying mood? We'll see.

Electronics recycling is too much of a bother

Let’s face it; most people won’t recycle their PCs and consumer electronics until it’s free and easy.
Driving through my neighborhood, it’s not uncommon to see CRT monitors, TVs and other electronics put out with the trash. The garbage crews dutifully pick up these items and toss them in their trucks with all the other refuse to dump in the landfill.
I try to be a good citizen and recycle as much as I can – aluminum cans, tin cans, plastic bottles, newspaper, office paper, etc. I even save old running shoes to recycle when there are occasional drives.
The last couple of years I’ve saved up my old electronics to drop off at an annual event sponsored by Motorola and the Solid Waste Agency of Northern Cook County, Illinois. I’m aware that electronics gear contains toxic materials such as lead, cadmium and mercury that can leak into the soil and ground water when disposed of in landfills. I don’t want that on my conscience.
This year’s day-long event was held on Oct. 11 at Motorola’s headquarters in Schaumburg, Ill. By all accounts it was a great success. The 10th annual event processed 2,460 vehicles, diverting about 134 tons of residential equipment from the landfill.
But to drop off my small quantity of electronics – a couple of spent lithium-ion laptop batteries, two busted digital cameras, a DVD player, a VCR, a few MP3 players and miscellaneous PC peripherals – I had to wait in a line of traffic for nearly an hour. And that’s after driving 21 miles to get there.
I wouldn’t be surprised if participation at next year’s electronics recycling event drops off because people got fed up with the wait this year.
The problem with recycling electronics is that there’s no simple, standard way to do it. Some businesses offer free recycling on trade-in. Others charge a fee for recycling PCs or TVs. Then there are community recycling events like the one I attended. Consumers have to do some research. Most won’t bother.
Municipalities should encourage some sort of curbside pickup along with the regular recycling collection. Have special, colored plastic bags to hold electronics trash. Better separated than in with the other garbage, I say.

Monday, November 10, 2008 says 'Yes' to women who say 'No'

Online dating service True has blanketed Yahoo and Google with video ads showing sexy women doing Web chats with presumably horn-dog guys.

In at least a couple of ads the women are seen responding to unseen Romeos by looking at their Webcams and mouthing “No.”

In one video, a model identified as “Summercusp,” described as a 21-year-old who likes poetry and Mediterranean food, looks surprised at a question from her online suitor and says “No” with a flirty smile. Moments later, she gets another chat message, this one apparently more shocking, and she protests with a bigger “No.”

I can only guess what the men are asking these ladies. Maybe: “Do you like comic books?” or “Can my Mom come along on our date?”

Anyway, I’m sure these ads are 100% accurate. The women on True are all gorgeous and do Webcam chats in their underwear.

Dallas-based said in May that it planned to increase its advertising budget by 70% – to $75 million – over the next year. I guess we’ll be seeing more of Summercusp and friends.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Coca-Cola's customer-rewards program blunder

Coca-Cola recently sent out notices to members of its My Coke Rewards program that it goofed. A software glitch caused it to greatly inflate the number of points that members had accrued from codes they had entered online from bottles and cases of soda they had bought.

I drink a lot of Coke and signed up for the program to get an occasional free case for my trouble. An Oct. 31 e-mail from the Coca-Cola Company informed me that I had 5,068 points. In reality, I had only 121 points -- enough to enter some sweepstakes contests, but that's about it.

For a short time it looked like I was eligible to get 25 fridge packs of Coke (each with 12 cans) or 211 12-ounce bottles of Coke or a five-year subscription to Entertainment Weekly or two Hamilton Beach Toastation toaster ovens.

Coke discovered its error and sent out a correction about seven hours later. An e-mail from "The My Coke Rewards Team" said only the text of the e-mail was wrong and the actual account balances of members did not change.

I would assume that some members had many more points than I did and got outrageously big totals in that erroneous e-mail.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Fall 2008 TV season a total bust

Maybe it was the disruption caused by the writer’s strike, but this fall’s network television season has failed to produce a single worthwhile new show. I’ve even lost interest in a few returning shows.

The brightest prospect, Fox’s sci-fi thriller “Fringe,” fizzled early. It invited comparisons to much better shows like “The X-Files” and “Lost.” I lasted three or four episodes before giving up.

The writers burdened the show with too much mythology, too many unanswered questions, too early. All the bizarre cases the investigators looked into tied back to a phenomenon ominously called “the Pattern.” Too much tease and not enough reveal. We’ve been down this path before with the show’s co-creator J.J. Abrams and the ride wasn’t enjoyable enough to stick it out.

ABC’s “Life on Mars” was a poor remake of a marvelous British series that ran for just two seasons and 16 episodes on the BBC. The U.S. version should have been more of a reinvention of the British show, much like NBC did with its take on the BBC comedy “The Office.”

It didn’t help that ABC’s show was poorly written and acted. The reaction of lead character N.Y. cop Sam Tyler to being thrown back in time 35 years after a car accident didn’t ring true. Plus, the hyper editing and camera work were distracting. I didn’t even finish the pilot episode before turning it off in disgust.

The romantic comedy “The Ex-List” on CBS had a promising premise, but quickly grew tiresome. It might have worked as a limited-run series, but not as an open-ended series.

Maybe I’m getting pickier with how I spend my TV watching time, but also dumped “Prison Break,” “Chuck” and “Eureka” this season. They didn’t keep my interest.

The last hope for this season is “Dollhouse” – the new show from Joss Whedon, creator of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Angel” and “Firefly.” That sci-fi drama is set to premiere in February 2009 on Fox. Fingers crossed.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Netflix thinks I'm gay

OK, I like musicals and Marilyn Monroe movies, but that doesn't mean I'm gay. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

Online DVD rental service Netflix seems to think I swing that way, based on members' Top 10 movie lists it has selected for me. Five of the 20 lists it chose for me today on the Community page were gay themed. Netflix says these lists were picked for me based on my queue and ratings.

Just because I loved "Moulin Rouge" (2001) and "West Side Story" doesn't mean I'm going to like movies described as "Gay eye candy." And the fact that I like the music of New Order and Kylie Minogue doesn't mean I'm going to enjoy "LGBT Film Shorts."

How many Bruce Willis and Clint Eastwood movies am I going to have to watch before Netflix understands me better?

Netflix is putting a lot of effort into improving its automated movie recommendation engine. Hopefully it will add some of that computing intelligence to the relevance of its Top 10 list recommendations too.