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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
December 16, 2007

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


CompUSA, Michael McDonald, Christmas Gifts

It's sad to see a good store close.

CompUSA has been the lone holdout -- a computer-only store whose people prided themselves on actually knowing something about computers.

But price drives the market, and so people bought their computers from stores whose employees couldn't help them when things went wrong; and the price was lower precisely because those stores didn't have to pay people to know how to figure out what was going wrong with your computer.

So ... what are we left with, if we want to buy computers and computer equipment? BestBuy and Circuit City as appliance monsters, and Office Depot, Staples, and Office Max on the business end.

Greensboro's BestBuy has a Geek Squad office. Is that the way it is nationwide? Nothing on the Geek Squad website says that they're affiliated with BestBuy; but the BestBuy website has the Geek Squad logo on it, suggesting that Geek Squad might well be a part of BestBuy.

From what I hear, Geek Squad does the job -- but it's expensive. You bought your cheap computer at BestBuy, but you should have added in the price of a single visit from the Geek Squad team. Suddenly it would have been cheaper at CompUSA.

Too late! No more national computer store chain. And that makes me a little sad.

But it wasn't Best Buy and Circuit City that killed CompUSA -- it was online computer sellers like Dell. When the manufacturer undercuts you on price with direct sales, how can a retail store compete?

This is capitalism in action. The American version is softened by regulations that try to keep competition alive, but the free market inevitably trends toward monopoly -- fewer and fewer companies, until only one is left.

Equilibria are always ephemeral -- eventually one competitor slips and the other rushes in and tears it to pieces.

Which is why I'm always rooting for smaller companies to make smart decisions so they can stay alive and compete.

Yet sometimes the market does good things -- like the way Borders and Barnes & Noble have brought terrific, huge bookstores to places that never had one before.

At the same time, I watch Borders making decisions that give the edge to Barnes & Noble. Borders has the better selection, across the board -- but their business decisions keep putting them behind, farther and farther. It will be sad when the only national bookstore chain is Barnes & Noble, not because they're the better bookstore, but because they're the sharkier company.

We'll still have good bookstores, just as we can still buy good computers. But our world is a little poorer each time the free market cuts another throat.

It's like the monsoon in India -- if it doesn't come, everybody starves, but when it does come, it can bring floods that drown people and spread disease. The free market can increase prosperity for everyone; but along the way, it does such terrible things.

I hope some of the CompUSA people organize themselves into local companies that can compete with Geek Squad by doing the same service for less. Think of a good name, guys, and spend your money on advertising, because it's hard to fight that catchy "Geek Squad" brand.

*

Not that CompUSA or Geek Squad could help you when you're trying to deal with lousy software.

When a computer goes south, usually you can find a physical cause -- a dead hard drive, a faulty motherboard, a bad memory chip, a burnt-out power supply. And, knowing the problem, you have a chance of swapping out the part and salvaging the computer.

But with software, it's a different story. Nobody understands the code -- certainly not anybody at the company that sold it to you! If the problem you're having is really a bug in the software, and not just your own inability to understand their wacko instructions, there's nothing you can do but give up.

Take, for instance, Video Game Tycoon.

My thirteen-year-old bought it because it promised it would let her "make your own video games and burn them to cd!" Not only that, but the games would be 3D, with "tanks, helicopters, characters, bugs, dinosaurs, super-cars, horses, aliens and much more!"

Now, I know enough about videogames to know that what they're really offering you is a single game, already designed by them, but one in which you can plug in different animation sequences so you have your own variation of the basic game.

But still, it's a good idea. Or would be, if we could get it to run.

My daughter usually installs things herself these days -- she cut her teeth on computers and needs no help, most of the time. But she came to me with the complaint that the computer locked up when she tried to register the game. "And it won't let you run the game unless you register," she said.

So I, the computer hero, came to save her. And ... it was exactly as she said. There was no way around it. If you tried to register, everything locked up -- even Control-Alt-Delete wouldn't let me close the program. Nor would Alt-Tab or Alt-Esc let me move out of the program. Nothing but a button-pushing shutdown and reboot cleared it out.

Now, that's simply evil programming. Not even bad programming -- it's malicious. There is no excuse for programmers' creating a game interface that locks you out from keyboard access for any reason, ever. You should always be able to get control of your computer back. And when you can't, somebody was either marvelously incompetent or deliberately coercive.

Now, it's possible that the lockout is some unfortunate coincidence of two programs in conflict. For instance, it's conceivable that the lockup is caused by our firewall blocking Video Game Tycoon until it can get permission from us to let it access the internet. But Video Game Tycoon has taken such absolute control of our computer that the firewall's inquiry window can't force its way to the front where we can see it, and we can't switch to it, and therefore we can't let the software get to its website to register.

But that doesn't make it our fault, or the fault of our firewall. This is a problem so easily anticipated that it's still either negligent or malicious on the part of the makers of Video Game Tycoon. And it is not a "solution" to say we should turn off our firewall in advance of installing Video Game Tycoon.

Needless to say, I don't trust these guys. So I'm going to open my computer to any malicious software or hacker during the time that this unknown company has complete control of my computer? Oh, right, like that's going to happen.

So Video Game Tycoon, which may or may not do all the things it promises, will never do them on a computer in our house, because it is designed so that it requires my trust while at the same time it behaves in such a way that I dare not trust it.

It's like calling an unknown exterminator to get rid of gnats, and he comes over with a crowbar. You ask what it's for, and he won't explain. He'll do the job, so get out of the way. Would you open the door and let the crowbar-wielding gantslayer into your house? Me neither.

*

Michael McDonald has about the most soulful voice, ever. And his Through the Many Winters: A Christmas Album (from Hallmark, of all places) is, simply, gorgeous.

Not that he does anything that is remotely predictable. The album opens with an achingly sweet down-tempo "Auld Lang Syne" and then is followed by a shouting cajun "Christmas on the Bayou" -- which is the only track on the album that I'm deleting from my hard drive, because I don't need to hear it again.

But the funky "Come, O Come Emanuel" is a complete surprise -- and a wonderful one. It's not that McDonald "sings Black," it's that he understands where in the human heart soul singing comes from, and he goes there and yanks it out for us -- in his own voice, as himself.

So he brings new life to song after song -- a bluesy "Deck the Halls," a soulful "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen," an understated "O Holy Night," a brooding "Silent Night" that begins with acoustic guitar accompaniment. The title track is a new song, and a good one.

I can't imagine a performance of the "Wexford Carol" with more power and reality than the one on this album, a duet with his wife, Amy Holland McDonald. She sings with a pure country sound, and the combination of their voices is breathtaking.

*

I wish I could review a movie for you. I'm especially looking forward to seeing I Am Legend, because from what I hear it's way smarter than a monster or vampire movie has any right to be. What else would we expect from a project completely under Will Smith's control? A friend of mine calls it "Cast Away on steroids."

But I'm up to my elbows in writing that must get done, and my movie-going and tv-watching are the things that have to give way. Oh, yes, that and my penchant for three-thousand-word columns.

I only have time to wish you a merry Christmas. Don't drive yourself crazy buying "just the right gift." The right gift is the one that is accompanied by a loving relationship, and it's the love, not the gift, that creates the meaning.

I know families who have decided to have a zero-budget Christmas this year -- everything they're giving is made by hand or bestowed as personal service.

You may not want to go that far -- but you might want to relax a little. Where is the joy of Christmas if you go so far in debt it takes you till June to get out of it? I suppose I'm saying this too late, and as an inveterate gift-buyer myself there's more than a little hypocrisy in this: But truly, gift-giving is defeated by over-spending, not enhanced by it.

But you already know that, because you've had it happen to you before: All the gifts were nice, but there was that one gift that blew you away. Not because of its cost, but because of its perfection. This was a gift from someone who knew you, who understood what you care about. Because of the thing you took out of that brightly colored paper, you know that you are loved, and there is no better gift than that.

And when you succeed in giving such a gift -- well, you have to think your way or feel your way to such a present. You can't just spend your way to it.

Of course, sometimes you think or feel your way to a gift so perfect you can't afford it.

That's OK. Try giving a note that says, "I know the gift that would be perfect for you. It's [for instance] to stand on the top platform of the Eiffel Tower and look out over Paris on a bright spring morning. I can't afford to give it to you, but I imagine you there; and I imagine myself there with you, and it makes me happy. Someday. Meanwhile, this little gift is another dream we can share." And you have something small and affordable and appropriate in the package.

Your love and kindness are always the best gifts.


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