Yeah, Amazon sucks (confirmed)

So I tried to order this:

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But as you can see, a soft camera case that can be bunched up in an envelope and mailed anywhere for a couple of dollars “requires special handling and cannot be shipped to your selected location.”

Unless you have Prime:

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They pulled this stunt on a lens I wanted to buy too, despite the fact I’ve bought lenses from them before. In fact it seems to come up with just about any piece of camera equipment that is either sold by or fulfilled by them.

Okay, fair enough: their site, their rules.

But it looks an awful lot like blackmail to me. And it definitely will influence my future dealings with them: if I have to pay extra just to get something I want, I might as well buy it elsewhere. Why, it would even be worth paying a bit more just to deny Arrogant.com the sale.

Prime adds nothing to my Amazon experience. The only advantage it gives is free shipping on under $35 orders. It isn’t faster; orders still take at least a week to arrive here. The ‘peripheral’ benefits such as “special deals” or streaming video are of no use to me. I should not have to purchase this extra service just to get the service that used to be available to me (i.e. standard shipping to my location).

Amazon is a lot like Facebook: it started out as a good idea, then got too big and now is solely obsessed with making money to the extent of ignoring customer service.

Thus civilizations fall.

Amazon, explain

It’s a shame the world’s largest online retailer doesn’t have a department for answering questions about their operation, but you can understand why they don’t. They’d need to employ about a million people to handle e-mails and phone calls asking why they are so stupid in their dealings with customers. It would definitely eat into the profits, and Amazon is all about profits. But sometimes you have to wonder if they’ve thought everything through as thoroughly as they should.

For example, while I’m waiting for the temperature around here to get up to something close to zero Fahrenheit (-18 Celsius) I spend some of the time idly perusing their offerings to see what deals might be had. It’s how I found the Lumix I’m waiting for. It’s also how I found a most curious phenomenon has occurred, one which leaves me baffled. Their unhelpful help department of FAQs doesn’t cover it. Not anywhere. To wit it is this:

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An item I ordered 2 years ago almost to the day now “requires special handling and cannot be shipped to your selected location”. That’s odd; are these photo frames now nuclear powered or something? Why cannot something I once bought and had shipped here be shipped here? So far as I know none of the area roads have been removed or bombed out. Okay, they are occasionally blocked by landslides and such, but not always.

Odder yet is the large number of other items which can’t be shipped here, which cover quite a range of description and seemingly have nothing in common other than coming from Amazon. (That’s the company, not the place in South America.) The only time I had encountered this before was when I attempted to order some replacement lithium batteries. Now in that instance I can understand why someone might be reluctant to send the merchandise through the mail as the batteries are considered hazardous material. But really I have purchased devices with such batteries via ‘mail order’ before, including through Amazon.

I have yet a fairly good analytical mind, and tried to determine the common denominator behind all the items I came across which they would no longer have shipped here. I failed. It wasn’t size, nor weight, nor material, nor point of origin, nor price. Really no one common factor seemed to cross the multitude of restricted merchandise.

Until for a lark I tried looking at the forbidden items via my wife’s account instead. Suddenly we could have anything we wanted just for the asking (and paying). How could this be, when the accounts are literally identical in every way except for the name?

Oh there is one other difference:

She has Prime.

So is the whole “you can’t buy that” limitation about tricking me into plumping for Prime?

Probably.

But we’ll never know, because Amazon refuses to hire millions of customer reps to deal with all the irate consumers they frustrate with their stupidly run organization.

In the meantime I say “fine: they don’t want to sell to me, I don’t have to buy from them.”

Addendum: if you are wondering why my wife and I have separate accounts using the same card, well it’s just one of those things that happens. We can buy each other presents without a tip-off for one thing (the photo frame is an example in fact), and we don’t clutter up each other’s browsing with items we’re not specifically interested in. Why does she have Prime? I’d say it’s because she buys too much, but that would be a terribly “husband-like” remark.

Amazother thing

Today we’re going to talk about everyone’s nemesis and nobody’s friend, Amazon. In the words of Gracchus “If a criminal has what you want you do business with him”. Beyond that axiom I can’t think of a single reason for doing business with them. Aside from the complaints of poor working conditions they inflict on employees and the obscene profits made by Mr. Bezos, here are a few of the things I don’t like about how they do business:

1). Sorting. Did you know that if you re-sort search results you sometimes get different results? Not the same results in a different order; different results. Try it and see. This is beyond sense as well as beyond logic. They must figure that if you choose “price: lowest to highest” you’re some kind of cheapskate who should only be offered the poorest quality merchandise. It’s bad enough that no matter how specific the criteria you enter you get results relating to any one or more of the keywords and not the whole, even when using their sidebar categorizations.

Sometimes it is the third-party sellers that are to blame: they like to put their junk under many different categories, related or not, so that they show up no matter what you’re looking for. You never know when someone looking at camera equipment might suddenly decide that what they really need is a new pair of socks.

2). Price-Pong. They play this game two or three different ways. Since we’re never told what the rules are it’s hard for us to understand, much less win. In one version (related to the above complaint about third-party sellers) items are listed with stupidly low prices to get first place in the sorting order, and then the rest of the cost is made up as “shipping charges”. Okay so this item costs $0.01, but the shipping is $19.98. Yeah, I’ll buy that one – instead of the one that’s $14.99 with free shipping. I may have been born at night, but not last night.

Similarly, the price sort may list a higher price first because the listing is by the ‘new’ offer and the sort has been done on a basis of ‘used’ offers. So the $18.99 version of an item shows up before the $15.99 version because someone has a used edition of the first version for $13.99. Did you follow that? No? Good: you’re not supposed to be able to.

Mainly Price-Pong is played by raising or lowering the price of any item you’ve shown any interest in until they find the point where you will buy. This includes taking it down to your “trigger point”, and also sometimes raising it up so you think you’d better grab it before it gets too expensive. What’s really inexplicable is how an item can be $13.66 one day, when not “on sale”, and then suddenly $28.44 the next. Or $9.99 and then $24.67, to quote prices of both the DVDs I was looking at recently. The joke’s on them: instead of buying either, I bought neither. Unlike so many of their customers I do not feel obligated to spend money with them. I suspect part of this is a ploy to justify their over-priced and not very valuable “Prime” service, which would allow you to buy with “free” shipping at any time you think the price is right. Well I don’t need to spend money on that either; I tried it, and it was pretty much worthless. On the whole buying from Amazon is more like stock market speculating than retail purchasing.

3). Here today, gone tomorrow. I don’t know about you, but I’ve seen items offered by the company itself just vanish from availability overnight. This seems a little odd. Usually when something is going off there is some warning; a price reduction commiserate with a clearance for example. In the case of used goods … well if there is only one and it sells that makes sense. You kind of have to wonder about “Only 3 left in stock! More on the way!” as well.

4). It’s ‘Walmart’ spelled with an ‘A’. Always low prices? Well “low” is a relative term, not an absolute like “lowest”. You should keep that in mind when shopping anywhere. Retailers always want you to think they have the lowest prices, when in fact none of them could guarantee such a thing. Not even with “price matching” (which has many caveats allowing them an “out”). If you price clothing at the Big A you can laugh yourself silly. Seriously; nobody buys that obviously low-quality rubbish for those pseudo-designer prices, do they? Would anyone expect the stuff to even fit? I doubt there is such impetuous optimism in the world these days. And woe unto us all if there is.

5). Setting a bad example. Because of what they do, other on-line retailers are doing it too. Everyone wants to be Amazon now, and they include “marketplace seller” listings in with their own. Well if I wanted to buy from some other web site, guess what; I’d go to that web site myself. At least some of them allow you to filter out the non-host listings. Big A doesn’t do that: you have to look at individual listings to see who is offering the item.

6). They should change the name to “Yangtze”. Although the extremely poor translations of the Chinese descriptions on many items are good for a laugh, there is an apparent dearth of goods made anywhere else. Furthermore, listing of country of origin is more than a little bit spotty. There are few things I will side with politicians on, but the over-dependence on Chinese goods is one of them. We should never have let it get this far out of hand, and not for any simplistic, bigoted reason. I certainly don’t agree with certain current efforts to curtail this phenomenon by merely taxing imported goods, as this does nothing to elicit an alternative source. We still need the stuff, and we’ll still buy it. It’s the same stuff, with the same supporting of corrupt and uncaring government with their horrible human rights abuses and abysmal environmental damage, but now it’s more expensive stuff due to ineffective additional tariffs. If we could see where the products came from ourselves perhaps we could make our own choices about whether or not to buy, for our own reasons.

7). Here’s a suggestion for you. At best the suggestions Amazon makes are humourous. Okay, they’re laughable. The ultra-simplistic artificial intelligence seems to have the reasoning of a three-year-old: if you bought a DVD, you must like all DVDs. Subtleties such as “this one is a good movie, that one isn’t” don’t enter into it. True, you can’t really expect them to rate all the movies, but they could build a more accurate assessment of your interests given the large amount of data they collect. Of course that would involve more advanced programming, and hence a further expense.

At worst the suggestions are just a waste of space on the page, or an annoyance in your e-mail. Their grasp of “related items” is as tenuous as their grasp of sorting relevance. Maybe they should just leave off their pretended evaluations and stop wasting time and space with what amount to little more than wild guesses. And yes I admit I look at things I’m not interested in, then delete the items from browsing history, just to mess with their metric. To be fair, I also look at and then delete items I am interested in. I do this usually because the price has gone up before I decide to buy. Too bad for them.

While we’re at it, let’s question the “Amazon’s Choice” designation. Choice based on what? Surely not any objective evaluation of the offering. Most likely another AI analysis indicating something that makes the most profit for the company, either by margin or volume.

8). Now you tell me! Ever look something up on Amazon and think you’ve found a deal, only to be told at the ‘check out’ stage “this item can not be shipped to your location”? Never an explanation as to why, they just ain’t gonna. Okay, so don’t show it to me then. They know where you are, so if they can’t get it there (for whatever unspecified reason) they shouldn’t offer the item to you. Sheesh! You’d think you were trying to mail-order cocaine or something. No, that they’d probably allow.

9). It’s all the same to me. “New for you”, “Recommendations for you”, “Related to items you’ve viewed”, and “Explore more items” amount to identical algorithm analysis output, just redundantly displayed in four locations. Never mind “Recommended items customers often buy again”; I’m just sure that having bought one 55-250mm Canon EF-S lens people naturally go back and buy a dozen more. And while we’re at it …

10). The site is a frigging mess. I consider it a prime (pun intended) example of how not to organize a web site. Superfluous listings, redundant links, illogical organization, and nonsensical categorization. If a digital tornado blew through their servers it could only improve things. True again some of the problem is third-party, but the host sets the rules and can make users keep in line. They simply don’t want to. In a way, every botched listing by a third-party seller is a promo for any more accurate listing by the host itself, so where’s their incentive to correct wrong images or confused descriptions? People listing with Amazon need to understand: they aren’t your friend, they’re your competition.

All these things could be improved on, and indeed they do ask for suggestions on improving things. Although to actually undertake such changes would mean they’d have to spend some of their ill-gotten gains on self-policing, reprogramming, and policy changes. Since we can readily see their over-all attitude is one of “meh, we’re making money anyway” any change is unlikely to happen. Except perhaps for the worse, if they discover a means of upping profits at the expense of degrading service. Heaven forfend anyone should take pride in their work, right? The problem starts at the top: Mr. Bezos’s motto would appear to be “I’m rich; nothing beyond that matters”.

Caveat: everything is subject to change without notice, including the web site and my observations on it.

Half a roll …

… is better than one.

Here’s a few shots of what the Canon can do – when I’m not messing about.

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Dog on the Trail.

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To Leave Upon the Wind.

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Moon on a Sea of Sky.

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Wild Strawberry.

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Raven Flight.

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Tiny Me.

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A Dark and Stormy Evening.

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Red Dragon.

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Tin Hat.

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Upon the Dew.

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Shovel Head.

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What Planet are You On?

This last one is my most successful infrared experiment to date. It’s not what most people think of as an IR image, or what most of them look like. But I do like the result.

Allegedly the sun is supposed to shine for the next four days (something that has been notoriously absent around here for a long time) and I hope to put it to good use. The one thing money can not buy is good photography weather!

Good Omens, the video version, a review

There is no question that the savior of this ‘series’ is the fact Neil Gaiman himself pounded the keyboard to turn out the script. Anyone else would have mucked it up horribly. If you’ve read the book you know turning it into a video production was a tall order; it’s difficult to get all the nuances available in print on to the screen. For the most part this Amazon production has to be called a success.

So let’s get nasty and find the faults, shall we?

First of all there is the modern failing of going a bit overboard with the special effects. This seems to be something producers simply can’t stop themselves from doing. It’s bad enough when working with a show that’s basically dross anyway, but when you use it to damage an excellent story you’re guilty of narrative crime that should earn you eternity in cinematic hell. Fortunately this is really only very bad at the very end. But it is bad.

The second biggest problem is in some of the casting. I hate to say it, but there’s a pretty obvious helping of political-correctness in filling some of the parts. It’s like some overly sensitive casting directed said “ooh! We need another black woman in here to show how modern and liberal we are”. Gods dammit, I’m a liberal and this was just hitting me in the brain like a pitchfork. Read the damn book and accept that sometimes characters are white males, okay? In fact in some instances they seem to have women trying to play men. It’s particularly funny when they’re being demons as they utterly fail to pull it off. Men are simply more naturally demonic. Try arguing with that.

Most of the casting is at least acceptable if not absolutely spot-on. A bit of the directing of the main characters was overdone, and they should have let the actors have their lead there; they know their craft well enough. Look at David Tenant’s ‘snake walking’. Subtle. Sam Taylor Buck is perfect as Adam, although Amma Ris as Pepper is a casting error. She pulls it off, but the Them are supposed to mirror the Horsemen and they don’t. They could have changed War to be like Pepper, but they got War perfect to the book to begin with. The other two aren’t even given a chance to demonstrate much personality at all. More time should have been spent building the characters of Brian and Wensleydale so the audience would empathize with them, and so that the characters were mirror their appropriate opposites. They could have cut out some special effects to fit this in.

As far as the Horsemen are concerned, War started out perfect, Famine was entirely believable (well-played by a black man – they could have made his counterpart, Wensleydale, a black boy to keep the mirror thing going), and Pollution was weird – not well-cast or played. I suspect the actress spent her whole time wondering what the hells she was doing there. Death was a giant disaster; badly depicted and poorly voiced. I could have done better myself, frankly. The fact they changed these characters’ appearances toward the end was also a mistake; there was no reason to do it.

Two of the oddest bits of miscasting are … the dog and the car. How’s that for failing to get it right? The dog (Dog) should have started out as a larger breed before fitting to Adam’s plan. As-was it was bad special effects that didn’t look believable. Afterward he was just okay. I understand from the ‘liner notes’ that the Bentley was switched to a 1934 model to get the “right look”. Well it isn’t right at all. You could see Crowley driving a 1929 4 1/2 Litre or Super Six, but not the luxury saloon depicted. It just doesn’t make sense for the character.

On the whole the demons come off more realistic than the angels. Good heavens they should have made some sensible behavioral distinction between the two. Angels would have been simple and good and confused, rather like Aziraphale. Gabriel almost made it, up until the end when they ruined his character with a single inappropriate word.

Overall the scenes and pacing work, except where they get confused about whether this is a serial (it is) or a movie (it isn’t) and the tossed-in flashbacks, although not excessive, do nothing for the narrative. It would have worked better as a long movie rather than a miniseries. Or they could have spent more time on scenes important to the story and less on superfluous special effects that add nothing. Although I quite liked the lizard on Ligur’s head. Very fashionable. It will probably catch on in popular culture.

One of the best bits is the title sequence, of all things. Some slightly silly and simplistic animation set to what I believe is a musical style known as “La Folia” (reminiscent of a piece in The Addams Family movie) which roughly mirrors the story elements and just seems suitable. Like a comic version of an Edward Gorey work.

It’s nice to note Mr. Gaiman tied up some loose ends for us that the book doesn’t, and he did it in the style of the original. “You know what to do; do it with style!” say Crowley, and he did.

On the whole it’s quite a good, entertaining watch. I think Mr. Pratchett would have been pleased. I’m not sure the same can be said for the other attempts at bringing his works to the screen.

(Note: I’ve taken pains to leave out a lot of detail that might spoil it for viewers, and in doing so I’ve left out a few issues that should be commented on. But as no one is paying me for a professional opinion, bugger it.)

Addendum: as of this writing it’s available for “pre-order” on DVD from Amazon, but at a rather substantial price. Although I might buy it one day, not for almost $30. It’s good, but not that good.

Amazon isn’t Amazing

You probably use them. Lots of people do. But have you ever subjected your usage to critical analysis? You should. You’ll probably be surprised, but not amazed. And if you have a firm grasp of reality you’ll be disappointed.

Amazon sells a lot of things. Moreover, they offer things for sale by other companies and individuals. This ‘business model’ has proven so successful that other on-line retailers try to imitate it. The degree of success varies; just because it looks like Amazon doesn’t mean it works like Amazon. Not that Amazon works all that well either.

The first failure is with those third party businesses. Amazon doesn’t have much control over them, although they will settle issues on sales negotiated through them and even drop retailers that garner too many complaints. Up to that point there’s a pretty wide range of buying experiences available.

What triggered my writing this missive is this morning’s notification that something I’d ordered had been shipped. Nice. And after only two weeks too. Other recent experiences have been similar, with one item taking nearly a month to show up. Now when we’re talking about buying from someone other than Amazon this isn’t something that can be laid on them. However a couple of my recent orders were “sold and shipped by Amazon”, and they still haven’t arrived either. It’s not like this is the heavy Christmas shipping season.

Now you’re probably going to suggest I go for Amazon Prime, with its promise of no fee two day shipping on most items. Well guess what, I did. It was one thing when they were obviously playing silly buggers and delaying sending over $35 orders with free shipping as a means to entice people to try Prime. I understand that sort of gimmick. Yet some of the items I’ve ordered under those circumstances showed up sooner than expected.

But here there was one item I wanted quickly without handing over nearly as much in shipping as the item itself cost (watch out for those low-price deals which then have massive shipping charges) so I tried Prime on the free trial. Normally that would be incentive for the business to go out of its way and really hustle, to make you think it is worth continuing the service for an extra $80 per year. Well, it obviously isn’t.

The order, “fulfilled by Amazon” and qualifying for Prime, sat for a week before they even figured out when they could ship it. Another order “sold and shipped by Amazon” is presented as “expected to arrive” in a week. And now I note even the “expected arrival time” before ordering is at least a week on anything I look at. That’s not really “free two-day shipping” is it? When it comes to waiting a couple of weeks for something, I’ll go with the free shipping on minimum order of $35. At least there are no false expectations with that.

Now when it comes to making up such orders you have to be careful. Amazon plays silly buggers with prices all the time, as they raise and lower them to see where they can get you to ‘bite’ on an item you’ve shown interest in. They’ll play pennies at this too. You have to be smart enough to say “no” when you see the price go up; delete it from your viewing and let the AI engine start over on analyzing your desires.

Speaking of which, it’s incredibly bad at suggestions isn’t it? This is due to three factors: the brainless simplicity of artificial intelligence, the limited categorization of items (a DVD is a DVD is a DVD), and third party sellers entering their items in as many categories as possible for maximum (albeit at times entirely incorrect) exposure. You just have to laugh. Or pity anyone who falls for it.

Can we take a moment to talk about the more absurd third party sellers? There are some that are quite straight-forward businesses who know their stuff and you can deal with them. There are some that seem to have a massive language, or perhaps intelligence, barrier problem and can’t make a sensible description/price (those are the ones who list their products under every category too). Then there are the ‘scalpers’ or possibly just plain morons who ask quite absurd sums for items without bothering to do any market research as to what others are asking (this is mainly used goods). I’ve seen some brand new items at 20X what I can buy them in a local store for, and some used things which apparently have become instant collectibles sought the world over by fabulously wealthy individuals looking to furnish their mansions. Although why they want a plastic camera for $9,876.32 to sit on the shelf next to the antique Lalique crystal I don’t know. But we have to laugh at something. One of the worst areas for absurd pricing is clothing. Just don’t go there. Never mind the fact you can not tell fit and quality from an on-line catalog and that returns are a major hassle if the item doesn’t work out. With some things it’s best to see before you buy. Most things. Almost everything in fact. Okay, literally everything.

And now back to Prime. There are other ‘bonuses’ included in the Prime package, and some people may even be able to take advantage of them. For me personally they are of no use, starting with my limited Internet service making streaming an expensive adventure in digital hell to offering of things I just plain don’t give a damn about. I wanted it for the shipping advantage, and evaluated for that I’m not sure it’s worth the extra money given how little I buy in a year even if it did work (which it doesn’t). Better to pony up some extra cash on the rare occasion I might want something faster.

But that’s me. Your situation will no doubt be different. Nevertheless you should take a critical look at your Amazon habits and see if you are using it to best advantage, or it is using you. Here’s a hint: if the Prime free shipping is really worth the money per year to you, maybe you have a consumerism problem and are just plain buying too much stuff.

Anyway, step back and take a critical look at it. After all, it’s a jungle out there.