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Avoiding counterfeit goods on Amazon: mission impossible?

I mentioned previously that I seldom shop for electronics on Amazon.com any more, preferring B&H Photo whenever possible. I now have another reason: avoiding counterfeit goods.

My company boardroom is in an electromagnetic war zone—dozens of competing WiFi access points combined with electronic interference from the US-101 highway just outside make WiFi reception tenuous at best, and unusable more often than not. To work around this, we set up a wired Ethernet switch, and since most of our staff use MacBook Airs, Apple USB Ethernet adapters purchased from Amazon. When I side-graded from my 15″ Retina MacBook Pro to a much more portable 12″ Retina MacBook, I wasn’t able to connect using the dongle, and the name of the device was interspersed with Chinese characters. At first I thought it was an issue with my Satechi USB-C hub, but I experienced the same problems via a genuine Apple USB-C multiport adapter as well.

Eventually I figured out the Ethernet dongles were counterfeit. The packaging, while very similar to Apple’s, was just a tiny bit off, like amateurish margins between the Apple logo and the edges of the card. On the dongles themselves, the side regulatory disclosures sticker was inset, not flush with the body of the adapter.

Counterfeiting is a major problem. By some accounts, one third of all Sandisk memory cards worldwide are counterfeits. In some cases like chargers or batteries, your equipment could be at risk, or even your very life. The counterfeit adapters we purchased from Amazon did not come from Amazon themselves but from a third-party merchant participating in the Amazon marketplace. To Amazon’s credit, we returned them for a prompt, no questions asked refund even though we bought them over six months ago, but it is hard to believe Amazon is unaware of the problem rather than willfully turning a blind eye to it.

My first reaction was to tell our Office Manager to make sure to buy only from Amazon rather than third-party merchants (pro tip: including “amazon” in your Amazon search terms will do that in most cases). Unfortunately, that may not be enough. Amazon has a “fulfilled by Amazon” program for merchants where you ship your goods to them, and they handle warehousing and fulfillment. These “fulfilled by Amazon” items are also more attractive to Prime members. One option Amazon offers is Stickerless, commingled inventory where the items you send are put into a common bin. Amazon still has the ability to trace the provenance of the item through its inventory management, but for purposes of order fulfillment they will be handled just like Amazon’s own stock. Some categories like groceries and beauty products are excluded, but electronics are not.

The implications are huge: even if the vendor is Amazon itself, you cannot be sure that the item is not counterfeit. All the more reason to buy only from trustworthy, single-vendor sites like B&H, even if shipping is a bit slower.

Vancouver vacation tips

  • Swan Laundry will pick up your laundry at your hotel, wash and fold it, and return it the same day for a $50 flat fee.
  • Wind Mobile has an unlimited 3G hotspot plan for $35 per month (they will throttle you if you exceed 10GB in a month), a better deal than any US carrier offers. They sold me a refurbished Huawei hotspot for $45 (why should the NSA have all the fun listening in?)
  • Urban Fare is an excellent place for breakfast and fancy groceries, specially the Shangri-La location.
  • The Blue Water Cafe is my favorite restaurant in town.

Slava Rostropovich, 1927-2007

Legendary cellist and all-around good guy Mstislav “Slava” Rostropovich passed away in Moscow today. He was a friend and supporter of Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Britten and many others like Dutilleux, and many of the greatest works for cello of the 20th century, indeed of all time, were dedicated to him.

Rostropovich

I had the opportunity to hear him conduct Shostakovich’s “Babi Yar” a year ago (when I took this photo) and a few years earlier as a cellist the Dvořák Cello Concerto (sadly in replacement of the far superior Shostakovich First Cello Concerto that was dedicated to him).

The world of music has suffered a grievous loss. None of the current generation of cellists (Ma, Gastinel) is of the same caliber. As a conductor, his legacy is more mixed, as his Shostakovich interpretations often lack fire, but his Prokofiev cycle with Erato is marvelous, specially the Fourth in its original version.

The classical music lover’s iPod

Sony’s Norio Ohga is a classically trained musician and conductor. In contrast, Steve Jobs is clearly not a classical music lover (and indeed is reportedly partially deaf). If he were a classical aficionado, the iPod would not be as poorly designed for classical music.

I have started backing up my extensive CD collection (99% classical) using the new Apple Lossless Encoder, and switched from my original 5GB iPod (which does not support ALE) to a new 15GB model, with half the upgrade paid for with my universal upgrade plan. I had actually started with straight uncompressed PCM audio, but while the old iPod nominally supported it, its hard drive or buffering algorithm would have a hard time keeping up the 1.5 Mbps flow of data required and often skip. I only used my old iPod on flights, where the ambient noise would drown out the low quality of MP3s, but the new one is a better device, specially when coupled with high-quality earphones from Etymotic Research, and I may use it more regularly.

The simplistic Artist/Album/Song schema is completely inadequate for classical music, where you need Composer/Performer/Album/Opus/Movement. This can be kludged by dropping Album and using it for the Opus instead, and fortunately in recent versions of iTunes and the iPod software, there is a field for Composer (which wasn’t there when the iPod was first released). The Gracenote online database CDDB is not normalized in any way, and rekeying the metadata is actually the most time-consuming part of the whole process (we have Sony and Philips to thank for this monumental oversight in the CD format).

Even then there still are flaws. If you have two different interpretations of the same piece by different performers, the iPod will interleave the tracks from both of them, so you have to add numbers to the Album field (used for Opus) to distinguish between them. If you use the “keep organized” option, folders are named after the artist rather than the composer, which is rather inconvenient and illogical. It could be worse: earlier versions of the iPod would actualy force pauses between tracks, which basically sabotaged dramatic transitions, like the one in J. S. Bach’s Magnificat between the aria “Quia respexit” and the thundering chorus of “Omnes Generationes”.

In passing, I have to tip my hat to Apple for pulling off one of the greatest scams in consumer history since the Bell Telephone company made people accept time-based billing for telephone use. Compare the 99 cents you pay for an individual track on the iTunes Music Store with the $18.99 list price for a Compact Disc (in most classical albums, you want the whole album, not just some stray bits of goodness in a sea of force-bundled filler material).

Instead of a high-quality 16-bit 44.1kHz PCM audio stream (or even better if you use one of the competing multichannel high-resolution formats SACD or DVD-Audio, although the difference is very subtle), you are paying for low-quality AAC files (I am the first one to admit that for most pop music, adding noise or distortion actually improves the signal to noise ratio). You also receive the dubious benefits of Digital Rights Management (i.e. they infringe on your fair use rights to protect the record industry cartel’s and get their acquiescence). No booklet, no durable storage medium, no possibility of resale.

Update (2004-06-06):

The iPod interface also seems to be poorly internationalized, unlike iTunes. It mangles the names of Antonín Dvořák or Bohuslav Martinů, but oddly enough not those of Camille Saint-Saëns or Béla Bartók.

Aspirin and history

There are instances of chemical discoveries having a major impact on world history. Dr. Chaim Weizman helped the British World War I war effort by inventing a method to produce acetone, a fundamental component of explosives in those days. The Germans had a near stranglehold on chemistry in those days, thanks to their pioneering chemists and large industrial groups like the IG Farben cartel. The grateful British rewarded him with the Balfour declaration, the foundation for the later establishment of the state of Israel, of which Weizman became the first president.

Sometimes, the link is more indirect. Aspirin was purified in 1897 by Felix Hoffmann, a chemist working for Bayer who was looking for a drug to relieve his arthritic father’s pains. He took salicylic acid, the active principle behind willow bark tea (an ancient remedy mentioned as far back as Hippocrates), and found a way to synthesize sufficiently pure acetylsalicylic acid, much less irritating for the stomach lining.

In those days, medicine was just entering the scientific age (the conservative medical profession had long defended its turf, trying to shut down interlopers like surgeons or the chemist Pasteur), and modern drugs were few and in between. A potent medicine like aspirin was a godsend and used too often as a panacea.

Generations of inbreeding had led most of the royal families of Europe to be affected by various genetic diseases, the most prominent being hemophilia, a lack of clotting factors in the blood that can cause victims to literally bleed to death from the slightest cut. The tsarevich, heir to the throne of Russia was one of those affected. His physicians prescribed aspirin, the wonder drug from the West. As aspirin is a blood thinner, this actually worsened the hapless boy’s condition.

Enter Rasputin, a charismatic monk, who advised the royal family to shun the impious potions of the western heretics and to adopt his brand of faith healing. Removing the aspirin treatment led to an improvement in the tsarevich’s condition, thus sealing Rasputin’s influence over the queen.

Many historians believe Rasputin’s influence was one of the factors leading to the weakening of the Russian monarchy, leading to its eventual overthrow in 1917, followed by the rise of communism there. Thus did an act of filial piety lead to the fall of an empire.

Winged Migration

I went to see Winged Migration yesterday (Le Peuple Migrateur in the original French). It is a truly magnificent and inspiring movie with incredible footage of bird migrations seen up, close and personal. Just go see it, it is suitable for all ages.

Migration

After three months of development, I have finally migrated from Radio to Mylos, my home-grown weblogging software. It is far from finished, but there comes a point where you must just do it (the fact my laptop’s hard drive died on me was also a good catalyst). I have tested it with major browsers and RSS aggregators, but if you notice any errors, specially on the RSS feed, I would greatly appreciate it if you could email them to me.

How to ship books cheaply

A friend is moving from San Francisco to Paris, and I told him about a very low-cost option to ship books in bulk, the US Postal Service Airmail M-Bag. I used this service ten years ago when shipping books back from Yale to Paris, some of them were slightly battered in transit but all in all a remarkable service. It is also available for domestic use.

You basically buy the right to send a whole postal mail bag at a wholesale price, which comes to slightly under a dollar per pound for France. Interestingly, the French post office does not offer M-Bags to French customers but will accept those sent by the USPS.

SMS spam

I just had the unfortunate experience of receiving my first SMS (GSM mobile phone text message) spam. If this happens again, I will have to ask for a phone number change.

Batteries over two millennia old!

This BBC article (via Slashdot) describes the fascinating discovery of batteries in Baghdad dating to 200 BC. They were basically clay pots with copper cylinder cores that were to be immersed in some electrolyte such as wine or vinegar. Their purpose is still unknown.

Eat your heart out, Energizer bunny!

How the Rocky Mountains keep Western Europe temperate

Western Europe has very moderate winters compared to North American coastal regions at the same latitude, with a whopping 15°C (27°F) difference. New York is at about the same latitude as Rome, but its winters are considerably colder than those of Paris or London, which are at the same latitude as Québec or Newfoundland.

Conventional wisdom claims this is due to the regulating effects of the Gulfstream, that acts as a heat pump between both sides of the Atlantic ocean.

New research from Columbia (more details available from The Independent) debunks this theory. Apparently, most of the difference is due to atmospheric effects, and half of that due to global wind patterns whose meanderings are shaped by the Rocky Mountains (in simulations where the Rockies are flattened, Western Europe gets 9°C colder).The Gulfstream actually has only a very minor and almost negligible contribution to the difference.

I find it really amazing how mountains 9 time zones away can influence the climate so dramatically. It is a small world, after all.

Movie review: The Lord of the Rings – The Two Towers

I saw this movie in the early hours of this morning, and was unfortunately disappointed. While the photography, acting, special effects and narrative are top-rate, Peter Jackson has taken far more liberties with the book than in the first episode. This actually impairs the narrative. Here are some of the most important examples i can point out:

  • Theoden is portrayed as indecisive, defensive and defeatist. This is completely at odds with the book after Wormtongue is exposed.
  • Similarly, the Rohirrim are portrayed as a small band of despondent civilians, almost a rout, and not as a proud warrior nation scrambling to muster and regroup under the newly reestablished leadership of its king and heir.
  • Eomer is shown as banished, not merely in disfavor, and is absent from most of the battle of Helm’s deep (apart from appearing as a contrived deus ex machina where in the book Huorns led by the Ents mop up the bulk of the orcs). The friendship between Eomer and Aragorn is not given any development in the movie, when in the book it is far more important than Eowyn’s infatuation with Aragorn.
  • Faramir character is shown in an unflattering light, in complete contradiction to Tolkien. In the book, he nobly resists Boromir’s fate and assists Frodo in spite of his misgivings on Cirith Ungol, while in the movie he forcibly takes Frodo towards Minas Tirith.
  • In the book, the elves are almost completely absent from direct military confrontation (apart from Elladan and Elrohir, who are not at all represented in the movie). In the movie, a contingent from Rivendell (incongruously led by a galadhrim) assists in the defense of Helm’s deep. The elves’ ambivalent attitude to the War of the Ring is completely misrepresented.
  • The interaction between Saruman and Sauron is completely trivialized as a simple allegiance, when in the book Sauron manipulates Saruman, who has his own agenda with the ring. The dissensions between the Uruk-Hai of Isengard and the Orcs of Mordor in the band that captured Merry and Pippin are portrayed as simply a matter of eating the captives or not, when in the book there are complex political influence games between races of orcs.
  • In the movie, Treebeard is blissfully unaware of Saruman’s wanton destruction of trees until Pippin rubs his nose in it. In the book, he is quite aware, but must carefuly consider that striking back could lead to the wholesale eradication of the ents.
  • Last but not least, the final charge by Eomer’s cavalry off sheer cliffs into the tight pikes of the orcish phalanx is one that would normally achieve the same effectiveness as the charge of the Light Brigade (not to mention some tasty Rohirrim-Mearas kabobs for the hungry Uruk-Hai). The way Gandalf overwhelms the orcs with his radiance is as hokey as the much-reviled Lord of the Rings cartoon by Ralph Bakshi.

All this might seem like nit-picking, but whereas the changes made in the first episode (essentially exchanging Arwen for Glorfindel, although I did regret the absence of Tom Bombadil and the barrow-downs) did not alter the narrative, those made in The Two Towers are in complete contradiction with the book.

It seems to me the whole plot was twisted to glorify the members of the Fellowship of the Ring, specially Aragorn, at the expense of impugning the character of the others, specially Theoden, Eomer and Faramir. This is petty and mean-spirited at best.

Eid Mubarak

Eid stamp(Eid blessings).

Today is the first day after Ramadan, known as the Eid-al-Fitr, one of the two main Islamic holidays (the other being the Eid-al-Kabir which celebrates Abraham’s sacrifice and occurs after the yearly Hajj pilgrimage).

The month of Ramadan is the one in which the Quran was revealed, and after a month of fasting, muslims emerge with a newly refreshed appreciation for God’s gifts of food and drink (remarkably similar, in fact, to the American holiday of Thanksgiving).

My best wishes on this festive occasion and may you find peace and joy, wherever you are.

How to make long flights more bearable

I just returned from a cousin’s wedding in Houston. One very effective way I found to make the flight bearable is to carry an Apple iPod MP3 player with a pair of Sony MDR-NC10 noise-canceling earbuds.

The iPod holds hundreds of CDs’ worth of music (without being interrupted constantly by the PA) and its lithium-ion battery lasts enough for a Paris-San Francisco flight. The Sony earbuds cancel noise passively (as ear plugs) and actively through destructive interference, and reduces engine noise to a low hum, so even pianissimo passages in classical music are audible.

Updated (2004-04-02):

I have trouble making the Sony earbuds stick in my ear, they have a tendency to work their way loose. I have switched to a better solution, the Etymotic ER-4P earphones reviewed here.

Site redesign

I’ve redesigned the site with a custom template based on Bryan Bell’s Moveable Radio Modern. Why the stark black and white design? Because when there are large colored areas in a layout, the perception of colors is skewed, not a good thing when you have many photos on a site.