Monthly Archives: July 2010

Chip My Underwear

In a news story Friday from the Wall Street Journal the much beloved Wal-Mart is in the first throes of putting RFID chips in your underwear.  An explanation is in order before someone goes off the deep end assuming Wal-Mart is going to monitor your butt while you ramble their megastores.

RFID means Radio Frequency IDentification and is a small plastic and metal chip that sits on anything it is attached to, waiting to hear from home.  Most RFID chips don’t contain batteries or other power sources:  They’re passive devices, not much bigger than a paper match.  Some are the size of a grain of rice, but they don’t actually do much more than one thing. 

What a RFID chip does do, is detect the presence of a specific frequency of radio broadcast signal, uses that radiated electrical energy as a power source and does the only thing it can do:  Burp up the unique number burned into the RFID tag itself as a very low power transmission. 

At the same time as the RFID scanner is broadcasting its signal, the scanner is also listening for any numbers that beep back on a slightly different frequency from the RFID chips that are within range.  Range is usually less than fifty feet.

Where the magic happens is that number that the passive RFID chip burps back.  If it is a unique number you can then look up that individual product (a pair of jeans for example) in an inventory database and see that number belongs to a pair of Wranglers, zip fly, size 36, Men’s, blue, prewashed, shipped to store 5834 on July 12th 2010. 

With a little more database work you can also see that the wholesale price was $4, shipping, stocking and overhead added $2.17 and the sale price was $17, for a tidy profit of ten bucks and change.  Then the databases in the back can also see that corporately we’re running low on size 36 Mens’ zip fly at that store, so the next shipment of clothing to store 5834 should have another dozen pairs of that size and style and then order them from the factory.

This can all happen in less than one second.  It ain’t rocket science and it ain’t new. Passive RFID chips are in your toll both device for the New York State Thruway, or eZee pay transponder, your work ID card and even your drivers’ license in some states, as well as in the newer US passports.

The question now becomes how permanent the RFID chip becomes.  Some clothing manufacturer have embedded the RFID chip in the actual clothing, hidden in a seam or pocket trim, as a permanent component of the garment.  According to the WSJ story, Benneton did just that a few years ago and caught a face full of consumer backlash. 

The problem is that the RFID tags don’t have the smarts to turn themselves off once the product is sold.  With nothing more than a handheld antenna and a transceiver, any pud with downloadable instructions can make any RFID chip broadcast back the number burned into it, if he gets in range. 

What Wal-Mart wants to do is attach a RFID chip to the sales tag, which is removed at the cash, or by the consumer when they get the jeans home.  Fair enough, the tag isn’t woven into the garment itself, so the tag doesn’t follow you around.  Wal-Mart is even being somewhat transparent about what it intends to do with the data, essentially inventory management and nothing more.

Other manufacturers?  We can only guess what they might consider and how transparent they might be regarding their use of RFID.  Would a brand-name clothing company permanently tag your favourite jacket?  It isn’t hard to do, physically, as a RFID chip could readily fit in the pull tab for a zipper.  Let us assume they’ve done exactly that:  Tagged that pretty summer-fall jacket you bought.

You enter the brand-name store and pass through the anti-theft detectors.  Unbeknownst to you, also in the anti-theft gate, there is a transmitter for the company RFID chips.  Your jacket zipper does what it can only do and pings back the unique number embedded in it.  Almost instantaneously that number is searched in the company inventory database and is found to be paired up to your Brand-Name Store Platinum Loyalty card that you used when your bought the jacket five months ago.

Now the store knows you and with a second or two more, knows your purchase history (you bought saucy underwear four months ago, as well as two tops, but have never bought their shoes or pants) over the the two and a half years of being a Platinum Loyalty customer.  Could you be greeted by name?  Quite possibly. 

Could other stores in the Brand-Name chain that sell different stuff, identify you as a potential customer?  Sure, why not?  All it takes is the sharing of the numbers in the RFID chip:  Brand-Name’s housewares stores could identify you by your jacket RFID tag and give you personalized service, even if you go to their most distant store, while on vacation in Buttcrack, Iowa. 

With a little truth management, they might even read the other tags in your clothing, to see what you bought from the competition.  That bra?  Ahh, not from us.  Sell her a Brand Name Store bra says the text message sent to a company handheld that the “sales associate” has chained to her hand.  Tell her about our shoe sale on now, just for Brand Name Store Platinum Loyalty customers, unadvertised and by invitation only.  All the sales monkey has to do is occasionally glance at the “customer assistance” handheld to see the coaching and prompts in real-time.  Your wallet, purchased from Brand Name’s affiliate, is now going to be emptied with some pretty slick sales tactics, targeted very precisely, at you, your buying habits and your history.

All of it eminently do-able.  No violations of the rules of physics involved, just some good database work and a bit of sharp programming, plus knowing that any RFID chip will burp back a number if you send it the right frequency.

Make The Drop, Dropped

In a previous post we mentioned the Ontario Eco Fee, a cash grab run by Stewardship Ontario to fund the proper recycling of various household hazardous waste products.  The high concept was that retailers would ding the consumer a fee for 22 categories of consumer products in addition to the retail price.  Again, the high concept was that fee would be passed onto Stewardship Ontario to fund the proper, sustainable recycling of those various products. 

As an example, a new home fire extinguisher would carry an Ontario Eco Fee of $6.66 above the retail price of $89.99 for a 10 pound Kidde ABC rechargeable, like the kind you might have in a basement workshop.  Then the Harmonized Sales Tax would glom its mitts into the deal topping the price out at $109.21. 

Conceptually, the retailer would forward $6.66 to Stewardship Ontario and they would use the money to fund a program that recycles old fire extinguishers.  Old fire extinguishers sometimes contain nasty stuff like Carbon Tetrachloride or Halon, neither of which are particularly good for the environment and should be disposed of properly.  Agreed and no issue there.  After properly emptying the extinguisher, the steel container can be recycled as scrap and melted down to make a blade for a shovel, or strings for a zither.  Steel is steel. 

Zinging the purchaser of a new fire extinguisher a bit to pay for a program to do it, sucks.  Then again, we can’t fund everything out of general tax revenue, either federal or provincial, so it still sucks, but at least it is a step in the right direction.  Again, at the high concept level, it’s at least an OK idea.

The final straw was Canadian Tire (Like Pep Boys in the US, but cross-bred with a Home Depot and a big hardware store) said yesterday it would not charge any of the Ontario Eco Fees as the program is utterly pooched beyond all redemption.

Today, the Ontario Minister of the Environment, John Gerretsen cancelled the Ontario Eco Fee because the whole program was so messed up as to be incomprehensible to mere mortals and applied so unfairly as to make people squirm with ugliness at the cash register.  Some places charged it, some charged it incorrectly, others ate the fees, while even more stores just threw their hands up and took mighty levels of abuse from customers as of July 1st, when the expanded fees came into effect.

The real reason the Ontario Eco Fee took a flaming-turd nosedive was the inability of Stewardship Ontario to actually communicate what the fees were for and how they were to be applied.  They skipped that little step of letting us consumers understand why and showing us what the money was going for before they stuck the fees to us. 

If you want to see who is actually responsible for Stewardship Ontario, here’s the link.  You’ll notice that the links for most of the senior management do not work.  Only the CEO, Gemma Zecchini lists her previous gigs, mostly working for the soft drink industry.  It doesn’t make her a bad person and we don’t doubt her sincerity, but the execution this time, truly did fail famously.

Again, back to high concept, the idea is sound:  We have to divert more hazardous materials from being dumped into the general landfill sites around the province, separating out the streams of ‘garbage’ into things that can be composted, things that can be recycled and things that should only go into secure, proper and controlled haz mat facilities.    

The various governments can’t/won’t pay for it, so industry, instead of having legislation inserted without the benefit of lubrication, came up with Stewardship Ontario to take on some of the responsibilities.  Imperfect, yes, right now, it isn’t quite working the way it was supposed to in the PowerPoint presentation.

So here’s a suggestion:  Dismiss the consultants who came up with the communication plan for Stewardship Ontario and start over.  In 25 words or less, explain to me, in simple language, why I have to pay a little bit more for some things and what you’re doing and going to do with the money. 

Show me those fees in action, diverting 88,000 old fire extinguishers from landfills for instance. 

Tell me the story of the company in Mississauga that takes a combination of recycled newspapers and biomass to make steam to generate electricity. 

Show me the company in Ontario that takes old rubber tires and turns them into something new, different or unusual. 

Show me the company that takes PET soft drink bottles, remelts the PET then weaves carpet underpad out of the fibers.  (We know about that one, because the underpad under our basement carpet is exactly that:  Remelted and woven PET bottles.)

In other words, make a case to the average Ontario jamoke that what you’re doing is good and will help us today, next month, next year and the next generation.  We’re reasonable people, we might grumble a bit, but we’ll go along with the Ontario Eco Fee.

If you can’t do that, then Stewardship Ontario is a sham and a con.



Stewardship Ontario and The Beast

The television finally gave up the ghost.  It was a hulking 40 inch rear-projection Akai, about seven years old, that resided in one corner of the family room.  It was known as The Beast, as it was simply mammoth and defied all attempts to move it.  As best we could tell, it had its own gravitational field.    

From an energy efficiency standpoint, The Beast was a dinosaur.  It could do high-definition video, barely, but as a projection beam it also consumed power continually, keeping the projection tubes warm, so that when you hit the “on” button, it didn’t take five minutes to warm up and eventually give you “Jeopardy- Tourette’s Week” on the screen.  It served us well enough and after seven years, The Beast didn’t owe us anything.

A couple of weeks ago, we hit “On” and were rewarded by the sound of an electronic pop and the smell of needlessly hot electronics.  Eventually a feeble, misshapen image of Alex Trebek came to life, distorted and coloured like the beachfront at Pensacola, Florida.  Since the Magic Blue Smoke had escaped from the box, there was no real way to fix it, unless you capture all the Magic Blue Smoke and put it back in the box, we knew that the Time Had Come for The Beast.

In the seven years not being in the market for a TV, things had of course, changed.  We’re not gong to argue the merits of plasma versus LED versus LCD, versus projection, or 1080i versus 1080p on composite or HDMI.  That is the job of the geek fanboys. 

All we wanted was an equivalent-sized screen that would produce good to very good images, including HD and good sound quality.  (As both of us have worked in film and television, we’ve been spoiled with proper, calibrated displays and engineered sound environments in editing theatres.  We can tell the difference.)

Off to the Mega-Retailer we go.  One of our first decisions was manufacturer:  We like Tier1 manufacturers:  They have a reputation and warranties they actually stand behind.  Yes, the Tier1 folks are a little more expensive, but you pay for the support and warranty.  On an expensive piece of kit, that warranty is important. 

The store Extra-Special Platinum Support Finger Up Your Butt, is not.  Electronics either work out of the box or they don’t.  If it lives more than 30 days, you’re good for five to seven years, so the store warranty is an expensive add-on that buys you nothing.

Having settled on Samsung and the size (46 inch thanks for asking) we then worked our way through paying.  After listening to the pitch for the extended warranty and politely declining it, we came to an interesting additional charge:  Stewardship Ontario Recycling Charge:  $26.25, before taxes.

If you buy a new television in Ontario, you get dinged for the privilege of having your old one recycled.  Not that they’ll come to the house and get it, or pick it up at the curb on Green Box day, but a per-tax hit for the sheer pleasure of contributing to the economy by purchasing a television. 

Conceptually, the Stewardship Ontario group collect these eco fees from the retailer and this funds the proper disposal of 22 categories of household waste.  For example, a 5.5 pound fire extinguisher has an eco-fee charged by the retailer.  In this case, the fee is $6.66 over the price, before tax.  Yes, it is an unfortunate number, but that’s what it is.

Then the Feds and Province tax you on the Environmental Fee. 

We’re not annoyed at the fee.  It is important that waste that can be recycled or reused is recycled or reused.  In the not too distant past, electronic waste was shipped to fourth world countries to be “recycled”  With Stewardship Ontario, we’re reasonably certain that some five year old in Sierra Leone won’t be setting fire to The Beast to extract its few cents of copper, burning off the plastic over an open fire in the dump next door to the corrugated tin shanty called home.

When we got the new tv home, we had to get the old one out.  For those who are not familiar with the old style projection televisions, they’re huge, close to 12 cubic feet of big, plastic box with a screen:  Your fridge is probably 17 cubic feet by comparison.  The Beast didn’t weigh very much, perhaps 50 pounds, but the size of it is daunting. 

After much tugging, wiggling and sliding, we got the Beast into the back of the vehicle and drove it over to the retailer.  We politely asked for a wheeled cart of some kind to get the Beast into the store from the furthest reaches of the parking lot.  The Manager asked what was it we were bringing in, so we explained the untimely passing of the The Beast, the purchase of a new product and our current request for some help in getting The Beast into the store for proper, environmentally sustainable, eco-friendly recycling of the plastic, metal and electronics as promised by the $26.25 Eco Fee.

“We’re only obligated to take televisions up to 32 inches.” said the Manager.  After a short, but important and emphatic exchange of views, the Manger gave us the consideration of a wheeled cart to bring The Beast into the store.  He even offered to have two of his warehouse staff assist us, which was politely declined.  Our beloved niece said “I’ve got the pipes to haul it, we just need the cart.”.  So we did.

As for the successor to The Beast?  We haven’t named it yet, but it sits contentedly in the corner of the family room, the cabling, speakers and controls all integrated into one remote, providing a very pleasurable multimedia experience. 

In fact, we’re watching the British GP right now.  Not in HD though, as our cable provider does not permit their best customers to get HD unless you pay through the nose for extra HD channels.  But that is another post.

The Beast is now in the loving arms of the Stewardship Ontario program, being assessed for the plastic, metal and electronics content of the carcass.  Eventually, The Beast will return as drainage pipe, copper wire or a cat litter box, but for now it rests in state in a warehouse somewhere.

Thank you to The Beast.  You served us well.

And the Stewardship Ontario Eco Fee?  We have collected a few hundredweight of old, broken and superannuated electronics that we’re going to be dropping off at the various depots over the next few weeks. 

If you’re gong to zing me with a fee for my new television and then have the audacity to tax me federally and provincially for the willingness to make the right decision regarding electronic waste products, then be assured, I will take full advantage of the service.  I think I have some weapons-grade plutonium somewhere down in the basement that I don’t need anymore.

There are several hard drives, power supplies, laser printers, old computer chassis, hubs, routers and switches that are going to wind up in your waste stream.  If you could, please warehouse them next to The Beast.

Canada Day 2010

(This is a rewrite of a Road-Dave post from July 1, 2007.  Call it a repeat if you will)

Today would be the 143th birthday of a reasonably good country that has its share of problems but seems to get along without too many cracks in the sidewalk.  Let me tell you about it.  I’ll translate for the Americans as I go.

Size:  We’ve got five time zones in this joint.  Newfoundland is actually closer to London, England, than to Vancouver, British Columbia.  I can drive on an interstate equivalent for 12 hours and only go through one province and about halfway into another.  To cross Ontario, one of the larger provinces, it takes a day and a half to drive the width of it using the Trans Canada Highway.  Smaller provinces, like Prince Edward Island can be circumnavigated in a day.

People:  34 million or so, mostly clustered along the border with the US, as the further north you go, the colder it gets.  The further north you go, the more likely it is that all your stuff came in on a bush plane, including lettuce, gasoline and Pampers. 

TV:  We have the 500 channel universe and have for decades.  Satellite for phones and communications have been around since the 70’s especially up north.  Ottawa, my home town, was a fully cable-wired city in 1967.  I have fiber backbone at the foot of my driveway if you want mammoth bandwidth.  Carleton University was one of the first wave of FreeNets using the DARPA-Net backbone for regular folks in the 80’s.

Snack Foods:  You can get Twinkies up here, as well as Fritos and Pringle’s.  But you can also get the Jos Louis, the Passion-Flakie, Old Dutch chips, as well as popcorn twists and sugar pie.  If you’re in BC go to Nanaimo, home of the Nanaimo Bar.  

Beer:  Lots and it packs a punch.  Try "Maudite" from UniBroue and wind up on your ass.  Nobody up here drinks Moosehead:  That’s an export-only beer.  Unless there is nothing else to drink, we use Moosehead to mop out portapotties.  Foster’s isn’t made in Australia for the US market.  It is made in Toronto to Foster’s recipe, sort of. 

Wine:  Lots and much of it very good.  Icewine was popularized up here.

Liquor:  Where do you think Canadian Club comes from?  If it weren’t for Canada, the US would have imploded during Prohibition.

Water:  Lots and most of it clean. 

Fishing:  Plenty of the freshwater variety.  Cod?  Not so much anymore.

Smokes:  You can find Marlboros anywhere.  I’ve found them in Ha Noi Vietnam.  Canadian smokes are not for the faint-hearted.  Try Player’s Plain or Export A Plain if you want to collapse a lung and wind up in hospital with nicotine poisoning.

Sex:  When its too cold and dark to do anything else, what the heck do you think we do?  The federal government used to pay something called the Baby Bonus in the 60’s, so mating was at one time government subsidized.  Not that we weren’t interested in doing the deed, but the playoffs were on, so a little financial encouragement was needed.

Hockey:  Too much.  Don’t ever join a pickup game of lacrosse, technically our national sport, as the injuries from playing lacrosse make battlefield trauma look like a tricycle boo-boo on a five year old.

Wars:  We’re in Afghanistan and have been since 2001. 150 of our military have paid the most horrible price and it makes us very sad.

Earthquakes:  Occasionally, but more on the West Coast, as the geologic and tectonic connections of Vancouver are directly related to Los Angles and Alaska.

Floods and Dust Storms:  Got’em. 

Drugs (Smoking Category):  The biggest export from British Columbia, aside from good lumber that irritates the US, is dope that will loosen the top of your skull and leave you babbling incoherently for a day.  Tampico ditch-weed is frowned upon here. 

Drugs (Non Smoking Category):  All of them.  We might be missing some obscure kind of horse tranquillizer mixed with lye and poppy stalks, but if you want to set your head on stun, the larger cities can set you up. 

Drugs (Real ones with prescriptions):  All of them.  I would be remiss to overlook the 222C, which is a high potency Aspirin with Codeine and it cures damn near everything that hurts.

Gasoline:  We’ve got plenty but it is expensive, as the government taxes the snot out of it.

Government:  Just as deluded, dishonest, incoherent and asshatted as the US versions.

Toronto:  The famous quote from Peter Ustinov about Toronto is it is New York run by the Swiss.  A closer truth is Atlanta run by the Dutch.  There are 198 countries in the world, each with their own cuisine.  I think we’re only missing the Burkina Faso and Tuvalu restaurants to have the whole set in Toronto.  White tablecloth to street meat smog dogs, we’ve got it.

Montreal:  Significantly better food that Toronto.  I defy you to get a bad meal in Montreal, or Quebec City.  Even if you order dog poop on a plate, it will be beautifully presented, impeccably prepared and seasoned perfectly.  Served with a nice Chardonnay and hand-made baguette toast points, you will still have a good meal. 

Oceans:  Three, if you count the Arctic, but that one is usually under ice, except with global warming.

Good Looking Men/Women:  The Boys Town area of Toronto has some of the most handsome, breathtakingly attractive men you will ever see.  Montreal has women so droolingly gorgeous that traffic stops to watch.  Unfortunately, in Boys Town, they’re almost all gay.  In Montreal, to get their attention, you have to offer a Porsche as conversational collateral.

Poor Folks:  We’ve got our share.  Try North Bay or Yarmouth if you want to see that segment of the societal scale.  The Hanson Brothers from "Slapshot" are not a caricature, a spoof or ironic.  "Trailer Park Boys" is almost a documentary of some part of Canada.

Igloos:  They do exist and a few thousand Innu elders are left who know how to make them for real.  This would be up north, past the 60th parallel and only in the depths of winter.  There are no igloos in our major cities.  We don’t eat walrus or whale meat, unless it is at a sushi bar, under very odd conditions.  The majority of Canadians have never eaten muktuk.  Don’t ask.

Olympics:  Let us not talk of our world-class, awe-inspiring performances at the Vancouver Olympics.  That would not be Canadian to toot our own horn. We’ll just avert our gaze and mutter “We did OK, eh?”

Driving:  On the right, just like the US. 

Language:  Eh? is nation-wide, except Quebec.  Eh? is an interrogative, noun, verb, adverb, adje
ctive, conjunction, gerund and even onomatopoeia on occasion.  In Quebec, use Qua?

Gitch, Gotch or Gonch:  Underwear.

Brains:  Insulin, the Zipper, Superman, the Blackberry, most of NASA in the 60’s, the telephone, Trans-Atlantic wireless, Gerald Bull, Marshal McLuhan, Leonard Cohen and David Suzuki.  Stephen Hawking is so impressed with our brains that he now works at the University of Waterloo, about an hours’ drive west of Toronto.

Talent:  Most of Hollywood.  Sorry about Celine Dion and Paul Anka.  David Frum you can keep along with Conrad Black.  Thomas Cruise Mapother used to live in Parkwood Hills in Ottawa, as a kid, for which we take no responsibility whatsoever.

Beauty:  The list is too long.

Idiots:  Mike from Canmore.  Most of the government.  Listen to talk radio for ten minutes and you’ll find we have the same kind of mouth-breathers here as in the US. 

Wide Open Spaces:  You can stand on the border between Manitoba and Saskatchewan and watch your dog run away.  For three days. 

Lump in throat moments:  The Snowbirds (431 Demonstration Squadron) on Canada Day, performing airshow acrobatics over Parliament Hill, along with 250,000 of your closest friends.  The Snowbirds are so cool, even the Blue Angels hitch rides with us to see how it’s done.


It might have problems, but it is still my Canada.  Happy Birthday!