ReBay: Rent Anything

For most things I buy, I don’t expect to keep them forever. There are companies that fill specific niches for item rentals, like DVD and game rental. But I don’t necessarily want to pay the subscription fee each and every month when I’ll go a few months without the desire to watch any movies or play any video games.

Lala, a service that lets you list the CDs you don’t want and exchange them with other users for credits to get the CDs you do want, has the right idea. But again that fills only one specific need: music.

There is one web site that has nearly all the pieces in place to harbor the people’s market–buy something then sell it back when you don’t need it anymore: eBay. Brad Templeton introduces the idea of ReBay. While it could technically be done now, he has some good ideas for eBay to promote the process and make it easier for users.

Essentially eBay should add an option to quickly relist an item you won in the past, working from the original descriptions and photos. In addition, there would be a place to note any additional wear that the item underwent while in your possession. Options to easily specify that the buyer be within a certain number of miles of your house to make a drop off easier would also be a nice feature to have.

As someone who often auctions video games or gadgets a few months or years after I buy them, I have to say that the ReBay would make the process much more pleasant.

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Wash Up and Have a Stroke of Genius

Of all the techniques for opening your mind for thinking, Nate Weiner’s has to be the most unusual. He suggests taking long showers and spending that time to ponder the ideas and self-reflections that are suppressed in other environments.

“I take long showers,” Weiner writes on his Idea Shower blog, a name obviously inspired by his unique thinking habits. “If I go long periods of time without answering the phone, my girlfriend does not worry about me being dead, or kidnapped, she’

ll just assume I’m in the shower. I take long showers because it gives me time for my mind to run.”

While I wouldn’t necessarily suggest you spend an hour in the tub, I certainly agree that the bathroom possesses many of the necessities for a good thinking environment. It’s distraction-free–you won’t normally find a telephone or a TV in the lavatory. It’s the one place in your home where you can go and be assured no one else will barge in on you in the middle of your thought process.

Some more conventional ways for harvesting ideas is to lock your bedroom door and sit at a comfortable chair (or even on the floor) and run through ideas in your head. I find the outdoors–under a tree or in the grass–to be a good place for inspiration.

But most of my ideas seem to come at night, so if you’re like me, keep a notebook handy for those random lightning strikes of ideas. As for Weiner’s suggestion, I think the comment on his post says it best: “Stop wasting water.”

Brit-pop Singer Knocks Radiohead Donation Model

Some agree that the music donation model could spell a major reform for the music industry. But pop artists are, understandably, not on the bandwagon. Brit-pop star Lily Allen criticized Radiohead’s In Rainbows’ “you decide the price” social experiment, calling the group “arrogant” for the donation model.

“It’s arrogant for them to give their music away for free–they’ve got millions of pounds,” Allen reportedly said, reports NME. “It sends a weird message to younger bands who haven’t done as well.”

It gets better. “You don’t choose how to pay for eggs,” she added. “Why should it be different for music?” When you draw a direct comparison between a critically acclaimed record and a carton of eggs, you start to lose focus of your argument. Sorry, Ms. Allen. Once you have a record that fans decide is really worth the asking price, then you can have a more informed opinion.

TV Networks Taking the Artistic Reins

Since Family Guy creator and key voice actor Seth McFarlane joined the Writers Guild picket lines, Fox has been scrambling to deliver new content for its flagship Sunday show, according to E! News. McFarlane told the studio he would not author, produce or provide voice-overs until the strike is settled. McFarlane voices Peter, Brian and Stewie Griffin, among other characters.

Fox has decided to overstep its artistic boundaries, as McFarlane describes, by planning to release the episodes without the final approval or voice talent from the series creator. While it is within Fox’s lawful right to do so, I cannot, in any respect, endorse this move. I sincerely hope Fox feels a painful recourse from viewers for this hijacking of artistic creation.

In that same E! story, the last paragraph confirms my suspicion of the strike’s true goal. “[NBC] became the first network to withdraw from January’s Television Critics Association’s winter press tour, which showcases midseason series. Others are expected to follow,” E! writes. Looks like the strike is already beginning to take a serious toll on the progress of new TV series.

Sync Calendar with Facebook Events

Facebook does not run my life. As much as it may want to, I keep track of my schedule on crumpled pieces of paper and in iCal. Like anyone else in college, it does have a bearing on a lot of social interactions, so for some parties, I’ll get the invitation on Facebook. But Facebook doesn’t ring an alarm to remind me of events, so I’ll sometimes forget all about upcoming events.

Facebook lets you export events to your calendar, but it doesn’t let you subscribe to an XML calendar of your events that can be updated automatically. This would save me a lot of time manually entering events into iCal, and would ensure that I don’t forget about staff meetings or a friend’s birthday party.

The ability to export your current list of events is available, and while it’s helpful, it still means you need to constantly go back to Facebook and manually export your events. I assume Facebook hasn’t included the auto-sync feature simply because founder Mark Zuckerberg would rather you spend more time on the site. I suppose Facebook could internally revenue the problem by offering its own user-editable calendar, but until that time, why not accommodate the users?

The Underlying Goal of the Writers Strike

The ongoing strike of television writers associated with the Writers Guild that has compelled the news media and ripped through Hollywood’s production schedules doesn’t appear to have any foreseeable end in sight. Writers are demanding to receive royalties from DVD and online sales of the shows they helped compose, like they receive for TV airings, and network execs aren’t budging.

Brad Templeton points out that this isn’t really having the devastating effect on viewers as the writers may have hoped. In fact, and ironically so, it’s driving fans to DVDs and iTunes purchases that these very writers are not seeing a penny from. Beyond that, many shows have tons of episode scripts sitting in their production rooms that they can dive into in the mean time, says the LA Times.

So what is the Writers Guild really trying to accomplish? The group knows that soon enough the studios will realize that there will be no more pilot shows, a major foundation of keeping a network fresh, if there’s no writers to put pen to paper. It’s not about season 20 of the Simpsons; depending on how long the strike lasts, it could be a long time until we see a substantial, new batch of TV series. And that’s worrisome.

Improving Computer Password Delays

For many computer applications and web sites, if you incorrectly enter your password during login, it will force a delay of a few seconds. Some login systems, like the one for Mac OS X, exponentially increase the delay time for each incorrect entry. This measure was initially put into place to deter password-cracking software, which would repeatedly attempt to enter thousands or millions of word combinations from a dictionary in an attempt to access an account.

The problem with this system is that the software engineer seems to forget that the interface is designed to be used by people, not machines. And people make mistakes. Brand Templeton suggests a better method: implement the delay after four failed attempts. By the fourth, it becomes obvious that the user has either forgotten his password entirely (and needs assistance) or is behind a malicious access attempt.

I’ve seen Templeton’s idea implemented on one banking site I frequent, where after five failed attempts, it locks me out for 24 hours. I seem to always find myself fumbling through my brain trying to remember which login-password combination I used for what banking site. I like the concept of the forgiving password delay, but please, whoever decides to implement this, don’t make the lockout time so absurdly long. It’s a very thin line a developer must walk between security and user-friendliness.

“Try Before You Buy” Music Retail Model

I wrote last month that I’m a big supporter for the donation system because it lets the consumers decide how much an item is worth to them. With all the hype surrounding the (not-so-)new donation-based digital music distribution model being pioneered by Radiohead’s In Rainbows and Trent Reznor via Saul William’s Niggy Tardust album, there’s a lot of questions about what is the best way to guilt the listener into donating.

Many people I talked to ended up downloading In Rainbows and Niggy Tardust for free, and then went back after a few listens and punched in their credit cards. For Radiohead’s album, I paid $5 up front because I knew I was going to love it (and I was right). But for Niggy Tardust, I didn’t pay a dime, and I still haven’t made up my mind if it’s worth the $5, or if I’ll even keep it in my library (but I’ve only listened once).

If the record companies or digital distributors, like iTunes or Amazon, want to jump on the donation bandwagon, the system needs to be more structured. A good way would be to offer a free (or $1 upfront to cover bandwidth costs) one-week trial download, allowing the user to listen an unlimited amount of times during the trial, and then in a week choose to either delete it or donate a fixed amount or (preferably) whatever they choose. Nobody (except the RIAA) likes digital rights management (DRM), so perhaps the trial download will have DRM, and once the user donates, the DRM-free files can be downloaded.

So many people are pirating music anyway. This seems like a good step to getting consumers to pay for music again.

This Week in Antitrust Cases

With all the perks that the U.S. Federal Communications Commission gives to telecoms like Verizon and AT&T (some being in the gray areas of the law), it’s nice to see the F.C.C. put a stop to one that’s really anticompetitive.

The chairman announced this week that the F.C.C. is ending thousands of contracts giving a single cable company the rights to supply service to an entire apartment building, The New York Times reports. As an apartment resident, this is a major win for myself and for the consumer. Cable TV prices are beginning to needlessly skyrocket, and this measure should put a little more competition in the consumer sector.

In other antitrust news, Microsoft finally conceded defeat in its case in Europe. It will have to open the source code to some of its software.

Surviving Modern Parenthood

Productivity guru Merlin Mann has just become a daddy. And as one might aspect, it has completely changed his life. One particular adaption he mentioned on his blog, 43 Folders, is that he now carries around a notebook to jot down things throughout the day. I’ve gone over the benefits of the notebook secretary, and have even offered tips for those with the high-tech alternatives.

On the subject of children, the new Mac operating system, Leopard, is making its way into homes. One great new feature for parents is parental controls. The controls are incredibly expansive, including the ability to block sets or specific web sites in Safari, stop kids from using certain applications or even setting bed times. Parents with little Mac users should look into the new controls offered in Leopard.