A semi-daily chronicle of my life as a musician, a family man, and a citizen of Oregon.

Sep 3, 2011

Sears Sucks

We’re running out of places to buy appliances.  Seems like given the profit margin on white goods we’d have a better chance.  Here’s the letter we just sent to Sears.

Dear Sears,

My husband and I have purchased several items from your store in the past few years we have been home owners. We have purchased a  dyson vacuum, two dryers, and one washer. We have done most of our shopping in the Lyod Center store near our home. However our recent experience trying to shop online was terrible. I would like you to know that you will never  have our business again.  We are both very busy professionals and  have been researching products for our recent kitchen upgrade.  We did our research and decided to shop on line to purchase two items for our kitchen a fridge and a stove.  After much online research and reviewing different products we decided that a Kenmore and whirlpool would be best and we could order them online from your company in order to save on time.  Within an hour after placing our online order, we were called by a customer service representative. I hope you listen to the call, she was incredibly rude and definitely would benefit from some communication training, something in the past I would have believed your company  would value. Today you lost not only our future business but our referrals to friends and family.  I will share this negative experience with everyone I know who may be purchasing such products for their home. My husband was questioned about the one line purchase by your customer service representative and when he indicated that we had bought several purchases from your company in the past, they questioned how they were to know it was us who had actually purchased them. Furthermore, they ran the transaction through as pending and demanded that we run down the store and show our identification to the store along with our visa card. Nothing of this sort was indicated on the web page discussing online ordering and pick up. Since we have been frequent customers within your company we assumed that you kept a record of these purchases. In the future you need to have  disclaimer that when your customers want to order online they will treated like security risks as well as be dealing with rude inconsiderate customer service and management staff, as we did ask to talk to a manager that experience was exactly the same. In addition, one would assume that your business process in these situations would include the verification step *before* you charge our credit card, not after.  When we shared this with your customer service representative she completely ignored the feedback, saying that Sears was not my financial institution.  I understand that, thank god, Sears is not my financial institution.  One would assume, however, that you could control when you charge us, although apparently this is not the case.  We have no problem showing our ID when we pick our items up, but they demanded that we go down there now today, our very reason for trying to do this type of business on line. Thank you very much for wasting our time.  You will not be receiving our business as customers again.

Aug 1, 2011

Meditation Journal

Slow start today, very encumbered especially thinking about music.  One insight I had was that my head is constantly filled with music. I think about particular songs and usually at any one time I have a song in my head.  This started when I was in middle school or so, which was a particularly tough time for me growing up.  I was feeling very alienated and that's about when I remember realizing that I always had a tune going on.  I would walk to school (pre-Walkman, or at least before I had access to one) and think about how it was kind of cool that I had my own radio station with me.

Interestingly, when I realized this I was able to let go of the music and experience silence, or at least the kind of silence you get when you're in your house and have various appliances humming and so forth.  It was tough to stay with it but for the most part I could.

Jul 31, 2011

Meditation Journal Entry

I’m trying to develop the habit of meditation so I’ve given myself the goal of meditating 20 minutes every day for 30 days in a row.  So far I’m on day 6 in a row, which is a good start. I thought it also might be good to jot down occasionally how the meditation goes or what the experience is like so that I can look back at it later.

Almost all meditations begin by focusing on the breath and that’s how today’s went.  Once calmed, I focused on experiencing the feelings and sounds around me as “2D”.  I tried to experience them as you might a 1980’s video game where the sounds aren’t immersive but are more externally generated.  The point of this meditation is to realize that the reality we experience isn’t true reality but rather a construct of mind and perception.  The meditation fell apart a bit at the end.  I’m not yet at the place where I can concentrate singularly on a particular subject such as breathing for the entire time, but rather I fall into deep meditation for a period of time and then my mind begins to wander and I have to lead it back to my breath or whatever it is I’m trying to achieve that day.

After 6 days here’s what I’ve noticed of meditating:

- I have a generally more positive outlook

- I’m less tired

- When I’m upset I have less intense feelings of anger or frustration when things don’t go my way

Next week I will add running back into my routine so I’ll be doing that in addition to meditating.

Jun 5, 2011

What My Dyson Taught Me About Cognitive Bias

The purchase

Jen and I moved into our house about seven years ago.  My previous apartment had hard wood floors, so I didn’t need a vacuum cleaner and didn’t own one.  My new, wonderful, highly mortgaged home, purchased near the height of the housing bubble, however, contained what we’ll put politely “champagne” colored carpets in almost every room.  A less discriminating individual may refer to them as pink, but such a brute would never be allowed in my new, highly mortgaged, house.

I am the kind of person who will pay extra for quality, operating under the assumption that in the long run I’ll save money – instead of buying a new pair of shoes every six months I can buy a pair of Doc Marten’s or Red Wings that will last two years.  Sure, in the short term I pay more,  but by buying for quality when it makes sense to do so I consume less in the long term.

With this mindset I knew that I had only a few choices for the new vacuum, and the Dyson value proposition of a bag-less upright had me sold.  In addition to being one of the few bag-less uprights on the market at the time, the Dyson looked and worked so *different* than anything I had seen before that it was hard to compare to other vacuums.  Subsequently, Apple’s iPhone, Toyota’s Prius and BMW’s Mini Cooper have followed a similar model, introducing novel solutions to common problems, sometimes successfully and sometimes not.  I honestly didn’t even consider a different brand than Dyson.  Based on nothing more than a marketing campaign and a hefty price tag I considered my purchase to be totally congruent with my strategy of buying for quality.

My concerns mounted the moment that we brought the Dyson home.  The quality of the components on the Dyson are atrocious.  Vacuums are by and large plastic crap, but as plastic crap the Dyson is low-quality stuff.  The pieces snapped together perilously without screws or any kind of reinforcing connection.  The electrical cord frayed within the first few months of use.  The swiveling mechanism for the brush assembly was constantly going askew.  The brushes themselves were barely a mechanism.  I made a mistake, but it would take me more than a year to come to that conclusion because I was still invested in the purchase.

Marketing Hype

People who market things have it all over on people who buy things.  First and foremost, they have the time and resources to spend the majority of their energy thinking about what it takes to get someone to buy something.  They don’t stop there – they subdivide the science of selling into parts – how to get someone to buy something once, how to get someone to create a relationship with a product so that they’ll buy frequently, how to trade out one product for another.  There are as many varieties of selling as there are gradations of plastic crap.

In terms of resources, marketers know a lot about psychology.  But even better, they get a huge quantity of something that academics don’t (at least not without concerted effort) – data.  And unlike an academic, who attempts to explain why things happen or what data may mean about the systematic effects at work within their area of study – marketers only need to know what works and how much it works.  They are freed from introspection or causality because their scope is so much more limited.  Who cares if plasma TVs use far more electricity than other kinds, driving up their customers’ electric bills and adding pollution to the air?  Manufacturers know how to make them for a price that sells.  All other considerations are delegated to the consumer, the retailer, or elsewhere.

Consumers can get some insight into what the marketers know, though.  My favorite site on wikipedia is the list of cognitive biases.  This site is a treasure trove of information.  Peruse it now, if you’d like.  Print it out.  Hang it on your wall.

Looking down the list, we see some biases that are at work in my Dyson situation:

Bandwagon effect – the tendency to do (or believe) things because many other people do (or believe) the same. Related to groupthink and herd behavior.

Choice-supportive bias – the tendency to remember one's choices as better than they actually were.

Confirmation bias – the tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms one's preconceptions.

Loss aversion – "the disutility of giving up an object is greater than the utility associated with acquiring it".

Outcome bias – the tendency to judge a decision by its eventual outcome instead of based on the quality of the decision at the time it was made.

Post-purchase rationalization – the tendency to persuade oneself through rational argument that a purchase was a good value

Selective perception – the tendency for expectations to affect perception.”

- Wikipedia

And that’s just to name a few.

For me, immediately after purchase I was convinced that I had made a good decision.  Dysons are expensive.  That means they work well.  I am a smart person.  I make good decisions. You get the picture.

But alas, the quality of the product was always low.  After a year, when the sting of the investment wore off, I began to become disillusioned. When the belt broke on the machine, and I realized what an incredible hassle it would be to fix myself, and how expensive it would be to have someone else fix it, I threw in the towel on Dyson.  Besides the belt there were numerous other problems and I just didn’t want to deal with them anymore.

A New Day

Before I replaced this vacuum, I utilized my consumerreports.org subscription to do some research.  I found that, just as I assumed, price is a poor absolute indicator of vacuum quality.  A Hoover WindTunnel, for example, was both extremely affordable and highly performing.  I evaluated it largely based on how well it cleans, the bagless feature, which was important to Jen, and it’s overall construction and quality.  I made a short list of similar candidates and headed to Sears.

The purchase experience at Sears was comical.  The sales person is obviously incented to sell particular brands by commission, and Hoovers were definitely not on that list.  She seemed to judge quality based on how often items are returned, which I’m sure coincides with a report that she pays close attention to, since it drives her commission.  She wasn’t sure about the Hoover we were looking at, because she hadn’t sold many, and she’d never had one returned.  During the course of the conversation we learned that she had only worked in the department (or possibly at Sears) for five weeks.  Viewing her as a source of information with only misinformation to supply, I moved forward with my plan.

After getting the vacuum home and getting it put together I can attest that in terms of quality of construction it’s far superior to the Dyson.  It also performs its primary function very well – it gets the carpets (and the hardwoods for that matter) very clean.  It has kind of a cool feature where the cord unwinds from its base, and retracts when a pedal is depressed. In terms of price, it sells for about a third of what I paid for the Dyson seven years ago.  My only complaint a month after is that the cord is too short.  It needs to be moved around outlets a lot, which is a pain.

Lingering Doubts

But, my friends, our brains are very powerful and our biases are strong.  Despite my experience, I still have lingering doubts.  For one, the fact that the Hoover was literally cheap makes it hard for me not to see as figuratively cheap.  It’s also cheap plastic crap – almost all vacuums are – and although I know that the construction of this particular cheap plastic crap is better than the Dyson’s I can’t help but have doubts.

I was at a friend’s house and noticed that he had the same Hoover vacuum I had just bought.  My friend, however, is exactly the kind of person who would never put the amount of effort into his purchase decision that I did into mine, let alone spend an hour writing a blog post about it.  He basically lucked into the same decision I made, assuming that you agree that I made a good decision.  The lack of value in scarcity in this instance drives down my sense of value in the Hoover.

So I am stuck with my cognitive biases, as I suspect we all are.  The difficulty with such a rich system of biases is that knowing you have them, there’s very little you can do to change them.  You can address them one at a time, but accommodating for all of them is very difficult.  Awareness is helpful to some degree, but at the end of the day we are made how we are made.

Jan 11, 2011

Christmas 2010

We had a great Christmas this year.  We started out with just our family in the morning opening presents and spending time together.  In terms of gifts there were a few highlights…

Dave got a new favorite hoodie and a hat that says “the boss”

Jen got some chocolates

Andrew got a much wanted Wah Wah pedal for his guitar:

And Brianna got a new iPod

Andrew got some skinny jeans for Christmas, but they were too skinny.

Later on in the day we went to Annie and Chris’ house and had a great time hanging out with their family.  They had a Kinect with a dance game.  The kids were hilarious with it.

Jan 1, 2011

Best Christmas Decorating Ever

We had just about as much fun decorating for Christmas this year as we ever have.  It was a ton of fun. 

We went with a live tree again this year, but a little bit smaller than we have in years past.

The kids were a lot of help, now that they’re entering teen ages they can be a lot more participative and the tree went up in no time.

Every year we take a family picture in front of the tree.  This year as we were getting one of the shots going I didn’t quite make it back to the tree in time for the timer and we got a pretty funny picture of my butt.

Luckily, we kept at it and got to a good shot.