Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Prop 8, diminished

The California Supreme Court has upheld Prop 8, but reduced it to as petty a measure as possible. Under yesterday’s ruling, gay couples still have the constitutional right in California to form a state-recognized family with all of the privileges and protections afforded to married couples. The government just can’t call it marriage unless the marriage took place before Prop 8 passed. The state will have to maintain full parity between domestic partnerships and marriages. Further,

any measure that treats individuals or couples differently on the basis of their sexual orientation continues to be constitutionally “suspect” under the state equal protection clause and may be upheld only if the measure satisfies the very stringent strict-scrutiny standard of review that also applies to measures that discriminate on the basis of race, gender, or religion.
This is far more protection than most states provide, and this almost entirely Republican court is now united in upholding those protections. The court goes to great lengths to make it clear that Prop 8 is just plain mean, and denies the Prop 8 proponents almost all of what they hoped to accomplish.

The court does leave the door wide open to embedding further rank discrimination into the state constitution, as long as the discrimination is done one small and hurtful ballot measure at a time. Hopefully the court will treat all future discriminatory constitutional amendments with at least as much hostility as they treated this one.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Links for home and away

Want someone to design and build a mini-golf course for you? Try Harris Miniature Golf Courses.

Prefer traveling? Lots of ideas at I Will Teach You To Be Rich, including many that may give you a new perspective on reasons to travel.

We’ll be up in Maine quite a lot this summer, starting in less than three weeks. Even in the areas that we know well, there are new places to explore like the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The journey to Cambria

After borrowing Jed’s car, we drove down the coast toward Cambria, our home base for the next week. We found a small beach just north of Monterey, where I figured I could finally dip my toes into the Pacific. After I sort of misjudged a wave and got soaked to the waist, we continued on to Monterey. Lisa picked up a couple of great wildlife guides in the aquarium gift shop after sweet-talking her way in. (The Monterey Bay Aquarium no longer allows you to visit their gift shop unless you pay to enter the aquarium, bizarrely. They may be confusing themselves with SeaWorld.) Then we had lunch at The Fish Hopper on Cannery Row, sitting on their outdoor deck over the water, soaking in the sun and watching the boats and seals and birds in the bay.

View of the restaurant, photo by Kojak

View from the restaurant’s deck, photo by Philip Venton

No matter how many times I go to warmer climes in the middle of winter, I never get used to the idea of summer in January. The weather had been great in San Francisco and Mountain View, but for the next week on the Central Coast we had stunningly cloudless days and highs in the 70s. It wasn’t until the drive back up the coast on our last day that we saw clouds or fog.

After lunch we drove to Point Lobos State Reserve. We were at last into the domain of the Big Sur guidebook, and into an area where the non-human world overtakes the human world. The ranger at the entrance told us that many of the Big Sur parks further south were closed because of the recent wildfires, so we spent a lot of time walking the paths at Point Lobos. There are several distinct areas in the park—we explored Whalers Cove and Sea Lion Point, and Lisa hiked out the Bird Island Trail while I watched the migrating gray whales in the distance.

Mule deer at Point Lobos, photo by Michael

Trunks gone wild, photo by Michael

View near Whalers Cove, photo by Michael

A perfect day for painting Granite Point, photo by Michael

Seals sunbathing at Sea Lion Point, photo by Michael

Stretching, photo by Michael

Walking south from Sea Lion Point, photo by Michael

We eventually tore ourselves away from Point Lobos and drove south through Big Sur. CA Route 1 through the Central Coast is a stunning coastal highway, and the ever-changing views start to feel like too much to take in. We stopped at the Big Sur Ranger Station for a brief break, and then at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park shortly before sunset to see its waterfall onto the beach. We stopped for the actual sunset along the side of the road about halfway to Lucia, watched the sky mock the limitations of Pantone into dark, and then pressed on to Cambria’s galleries and restaurants. A quick stop at Moonstone Gallery to buy a kaleidoscope, some groceries from Soto’s Market, dinner at Linn’s, and then we finally found our rental house and settled in for a blissful week.

CA Route 1

Photo by Michael

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Gerund or expletive, you be the judge

The hundreds of lilacs at the Arnold Arboretum should be in full flower for another week or so, and are really stunning. We took Lisa’s parents and a picnic lunch yesterday, then came back here and barbecued in the late afternoon. Today we worked on our own garden, watched the Baltimore oriole couple flirting over our heads in our back yard trees for quite some time, barbecued again, and now we’re all set with lunches and dinners for a week or three.

I’m settling into the Whole Foods wood charcoal, started with the chimney instead of lighter fluid. It burns rather hot and fast, but over the two days I still had plenty of time to grill steak, tenderloin strips, burgers, lamp shoulder chops, sausage, chicken tenders in two different marinades, zucchini, fiddleheads, and pineapple.

It’s been a year since the Whole Foods opened nearby, and we still marvel at our good fortune. Friendly staff, a well-lit and well-kept store, and far more selection than we had before. We walk over several times a week when the weather is good, and usually come back with more than was on our mental list. Chatting with some of their staff today, we found out that they’re going to plant some of the area around their parking lot with native plants. An employee barbecue this week is going to include a management dunk tank to raise funds for the planting, and the store is hoping to earn some sort of certification when they complete the project.

Lisa and I are both a little sunburned, a little tired, and far more relaxed. Updated: we’d thought about going to see Star Trek on the Imax screen, but it’s sold out, so we’ll be watching something at home. Looks like we’ll be here if there’s a repeat of the fucking skunks incident of Saturday night. Shoot. I wasn’t going to mention that. Really, except for a brief 12-hour period of hell, it’s been a perfect weekend.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Wedding advice wanted

A good friend has just gotten engaged, and is planning the wedding for this summer. Possibly an outdoor wedding. What’s your most important piece of wedding planning advice, from your experience either planning a wedding or attending weddings?

I’ll go first: if there are a lot of kids attending the wedding, set aside a separate space where they can run around when they get bored. Possibly with a babysitter to help out.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

CafePress and marketplace forces

CafePress is a print-on-demand service that allows people to upload designs and sell them on shirts and mugs and posters. CafePress has always allowed you to set the selling price for the objects you create. There’s a base price which covers the costs and profit for CafePress, and then you can add whatever you want to that and keep the difference. You can set up shops on their site, where you can organize a group of items you want to sell. A small shop is free, and a larger shop costs a little money.

Some people use CafePress to create objects for themselves or for friends and family. Some use CafePress to earn small or large amounts of money, or to raise funds for an organization. And some just use CafePress for the fun of it. Personally, I’ve got a few hundred items on CafePress, and I’ve made some meal money that way.

If you’re shopping on CafePress, you can search for items that anyone has created (unless they decided to keep the item private). CafePress calls this the Marketplace, even though it’s really just an extremely bad search engine. There are many reasons why the search engine is bad: the search algorithms are poorly written; results load slowly; the search engine depends on tags and too-short descriptions which frequently don’t accurately describe the design; it’s a little difficult to see more designs by the same person; it’s impossible to filter out designs or designers you don’t like; and the vast majority of the designs on CafePress are poorly done, so the vast majority of results for most searches are unappealing. But tastes vary, and there are many funny, unique, and attractive items on CafePress, so a lot of people do wander around CafePress, see something they like for themselves or for someone else, and order things. A Marketplace that let shoppers find things they like more easily would sell more—that’s why Amazon is so successful.

Until now, it hasn’t mattered much how people found a CafePress item that they wanted to buy: they might have followed a direct link to an item or to a shop, or been searching on Google, or been wandering around CafePress. (The affiliate program might take a 15% cut of some sales, and you might earn a bonus if you sold enough items through direct links to your shop, but those were fairly small variations.) For shoppers, it hasn’t mattered at all how they found the item they wanted to buy. CafePress and item creators all wanted to make it easier for shoppers to find items, so there was a sense of cooperation.

But starting June 1, CafePress has decided to pretend that the shops and the Marketplace are completely different. The same item will have two different prices, and the amount that the designer receives will be wildly different. Here’s an example:

I created a Rorschach blot design last winter and put it up on CafePress, where you can buy a number of different objects with the design printed on them.

Suppose you want this design on a tote bag. Right now, you can buy the tote bag for $16.99. If you do, I receive $4.00 and CafePress receives $12.99 (their base price). You might find the tote bag by following a link from here or somewhere else, or by searching on Google, or by searching on CafePress. The end result for you and for me will be the same in any of those situations.

Starting June 1, some links directly to the tote bag will give you a price of $16.99, and I’ll receive $4.00. But if you search on CafePress or follow other links to the tote bag, the tote bag will be $15 to $20 and I’ll receive 10% ($1.50 to $2.00). CafePress says that they will continue to change prices in the Marketplace, so you might pay more or less than the shop price, but I’ll definitely receive a lot less.

And CafePress says this is to make the customer experience more consistent, because they can set the price of all tote bags in the Marketplace to the same fluctuating amount.

Suddenly the sense of cooperation between CafePress and the designers is gone. I have to compete with CafePress to try to get a customer to follow one link to the tote bag instead of another. If I have a direct relationship with my customers, I have to explain why the same item is appearing at two different prices on the same site, and why one of those prices keeps changing. And I have to accept that an unknown and unauditable number of sales will result in much lower revenue. Many designers are looking at a 75% or greater reduction in the amount of money they’ll receive.

If I opt out of the Marketplace, then at least my items will have only one price and I’ll still receive the amount of money I set. But customers won’t be able to find my products using CafePress’ own search engine, even though my products will still be available on CafePress’ site if you come in from direct links or outside search engines. That’s bad for me (since customers using the CafePress search engine definitely won’t buy my products) and bad for CafePress (since customers who see a lot fewer items are less likely to buy anything). And it makes the search engine on CafePress completely defective.

The result is that a lot of the best-selling designers on CafePress are moving to Zazzle or somewhere else. Those designers are, by definition, the ones creating the designs that customers want to actually buy. As they leave, the ratio of good to bad designs on CafePress gets worse, which means fewer customers buying items from CafePress and a more negative sense of the quality of CafePress items.

My company has a CafePress shop to sell some light-hearted items. We can’t try to explain to our customers why a product is showing up at one price at and another price at People who suspect that Amazon or Expedia are showing different prices to different customers get really angry, and with good reason. We also don’t want to see our best-selling item (a classroom poster) change from a $15 profit to a $2 profit. So we’ll be opting out of the Marketplace now as the best way to both avoid those problems and not have to change every link we already have to our CafePress shop in our catalogs and on our web site.

But that’s just the first step we need to take. It’s clear that this new approach from CafePress is unsustainable over the long term. The poorly executed bifurcation of their site and the deliberate crippling of their own search engine will generate massive confusion, resentment, and complaints. Since CafePress is far more likely to solve that by retaining only the Marketplace, we need to start moving our shop to Zazzle as well, despite the work involved and even though we don’t depend on the Marketplace for the majority of our sales.

How sweet the sound

So many oddities to air travel this weekend: a security breach at Dulles leads to the entire airport playing “freeze” for an hour but no explanation is ever given; some passengers are wearing medical respirators; security checkpoints are much more friendly and efficient; random extended searches are much less frequent; and the coffee on the plane is Starbucks. And the commute from Virginia to Lisa’s office in Boston on Monday morning only took a little longer than the usual commute from home.

We had a great time in Virginia visiting Jen and Peter and their three wonderful kids. Played Fluxx, Rat-a-Tat-Cat, rope tug with the dog, and Wii Tennis (which Jed had introduced us to in January). After working 14 hours on Friday, a real weekend of games and socializing was just what the doctor ordered. When I last saw William, he was a babe in arms. Now Jack is that age, and William is running and talking and practically self-sufficient. Katie is in first grade, speaking and writing Japanese, and alternately fascinated and frustrated by Fluxx. But the best part of the weekend was seeing how happy Jen and Peter are through all the noise and chaos and obligations. I long to approach my life with more of the emotional grace that they show.