Schwankenstein’s Monster

Assortment of Links and Stories of Interest

Best Buy Charges Open Box on Zip-Locked Camera

Best Buy is notorious for having horrible customer service (they are currently running a close second to Comcast in the Consumerist’s Worst Company in America Contest). Tonight I tried to return a JVC Everio camcorder that I bought last week as an open box item. The camera’s recording format does not work natively with Final Cut Pro, which was going to be a problem. Best Buy’s policy is to charge a 15% restocking fee on returns of opened items. I was surprised when they charged me the 15% because the item I returned was a “Open Box Special,” meaning when they sold it to me it came in a zip-lock bag. Should repacking fees apply to products that weren’t packed in the first place?

Restocking fees are becoming increasingly common, but nonetheless reflect a “satisfaction not-guaranteed” attitude that makes me wonder why people still shop at places like Best Buy when so many companies offer better customer service. Costco and Amazon both come to mind as better alternatives, in addition to better return policies they consistently offer better pricing than Best Buy.

What is sad is that Best Buy seems focused on targeting the portion of the market that is least informed about technology and least likely to know when they are getting ripped off.


March 15, 2008 Posted by | Consumer Protection | , | 1 Comment

Schwakenstein’s Monster is Moving to a New Domain

Schwankenstein’s Monster has a new name and domain. Due to the growth of the site, and the limitations of the platform we are moving to a self-hosted configuration. The upside is that we will have more flexibility in the type of multi-media files that the platform supports, and we hope to start posting some original interviews and technology demos in the weeks to come.

The new domain is, and we are slowly transitioning new content to the This is Tech site.  We hope you will check it out.

March 9, 2008 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Starbucks Should Buy TopPot

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starbucks-logo.gif (GIF Image, 400x400 pixels).jpgtoppot.jpg (JPEG Image, 457x437 pixels).jpg

March 9, 2008 Posted by | Business, Coffee, Food | , , , , , , | 1 Comment

V.I.O. — Products — Digital Products

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March 8, 2008 Posted by | Gadgets, Science | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Shure and Sensaphonics (The Best and Worst in Customer Service)

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March 6, 2008 Posted by | Consumer Protection, Gadgets, Music | , , , , | 11 Comments

Kindle vs Sony Cagematch

Update: Feb 2009:

Amazon just started accepting preorders on the Kindle 2, which solves many of the complaints that people, including my wife, had about the original.  

Full details here: Amazon Kindle 2




Some of you know that I am a big fan of my Amazon Kindle. What you don’t know is that my wife prefers the Sony Reader. In this showdown, we go husband versus wife in a battle royal comparing the strengths and weaknesses of each device from our unique perspectives. Game On:

My Arguments:

I believe in substance over style and the Kindle is a superior device to the Sony Reader.

Wireless. The wireless functionality puts the Kindle in its own class. Wireless is the kind of essential functionality that people will eventually take for granted as eBook readers become more mainstream. “Mommy, tell me again what it was like when you were a kid and people connected their devices to a computer with a cable.” I am a technology junky and even I don’t like the hassle of having to find a cable and plugging my devices into the computer. I can browse a huge library of books and have them delivered wirelessly to my device. TheeInk technology that powers both devices is cool, but by itself it doesn’t do much more than a regular book. Wireless connectivity gives Kindle users instant access to Amazon’s entire library of ebooks, which is the kind of technology that borders on magic.

Better Conversion. Amazon makes it easy to get your own content on the Kindle. They give users an email
address linked directly to the device. This means if you email a Word document or a PDF to it automatically is converted and sent wirelessly to your device.The conversion of PDFs runs an optical character recognition on the document and creates clean crisp text for the book. Amazon also automatically recognizes the table of contents and maps it to the various part of the book. Before I bought the Kindle, I tried putting a few PDF’son my wife’s Sony Reader, and they were illegible. The Sony was displaying the pages as graphics instead of text, which on the small screen just didn’t work. The Kindle’s high quality conversion means that you aren’t as locked-in to Amazon’s ebook store. A couple days ago I downloaded a science fiction book called Accelerando by Charlie Stross. What’s great about that is that Accelarando is published under a Creative Commons license, which means I can read it for free or even give a copy to a friend. If you are interested, you can download a copy here, friend). Moving Accelarando onto the Kindle was as easy as emailing it to myself. I really hope this kind of functionality helps people like Stross succeed. I am a few chapters into the book and it is outstanding. Sending books to yourself wirelessly costs ten cents, but you can email files to and they will reply to your email with converted files you can move to the Kindle by USB for free.




Sony is Evil. I would prefer to give my money to almost any technology company before Sony. Based on their previous products, the heavy imposition of DRM, and root-kit copy protection, I think it is fair to say that they hate their customers. They have historically tried to lock customers into proprietary formats like the Betamax, minidisc, and now blue-ray.Sony’s ownership of both the content and the hardware has caused them to put out crippled products that are anti-consumer, and I don’t see any reason to expect the Sony Reader to be any different.

Book Cost. One of the downsides of both the readers is that they are tied to the manufacturers’ stores (everyone wants to be like Apple’s iTunes). The difference here is that books on the Kindle cost less. When my wife and I compare prices for the same book, it is typically a couple dollars cheaper on my Kindle. I assume as competition increases, Sony will get their prices in line, although once you are locked into their platform all you can do is hope. Another cost saver is that Amazon will send you the first 20 or so pages of books in their store for free as a sample. The samples show up instantly and give me a chance to see if the book is going to be any good before I buy.

Newspapers and Blogs. The Kindle’s wireless functionality allows me to subscribe to newspapers and blogs and
have them delivered automatically to the device. I am not a big newspaper fan, but there are a number of really good blogs that I am glad to have with me on the go. The best one I have found is Wharton’s Knowledge@Wharton, which has magazine quality and is delivered to my Kindle weekly for $1 a month.


Amazon Cares More. Amazon has invested a lot in the Kindle. It is known to be a personal pet project of Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos. This means the development of the platform will get attention. When Amazon makes improvements to the Kindle software, the updates will be pushed down automatically. The Sony Reader, on the other hand, is a very small part of Sony’s business.

Built-In Dictionary. The Kindle has a built in dictionary (and free access to wikipedia) that allows you to highlight any word in a book you are reading and look it up. I have been using this feature a lot. I thought about giving Sony a pass on this one, since the Amazon dictionary and wikipedia access on the Kindle are tied to its wireless, but lack of wireless on the Sony is no excuse for not including a dictionary. Sony could have incorporated a dictionary into their
reader, but didn’t.


In summary, the Kindle is a superior machine. While it lacks the Sony’s style, it makes up for it with functionality, and the whole point is to read, not just look pretty.


Stacy’s Arguments:

Carrying a Sony reader means not carrying around a piece of crap.


I bought my Sony PRS505 reader a month or so before I had even heard about the Amazon reader.

I thought that I might have buyers remorse once I saw the Kindle due to all the hype I had heard, and after barely hearing anything about the Sony, and so anxiously awaited the arrival of my husbands Kindle in January. I was the one to pick up the package from the doorstop, but was asked not to open it until he got home. So anticipation mounted with doubts flickering through my mind, until… I saw it. I could not believe, and still can’t, that THIS was what Amazon had created!

Size. It is HUGE! Amazon shows the Kindle on its website as being as thick as a pencil. I don’t think so! And once you put it in its humongous case, forget about it. You may as well be carrying a 600 pg novel around with you! In contrast, the Sony IS as slim as a pencil and the sleek leather case adds about only 1/3 of an inch.


Cases. Even the cases are like day and night. The Sony’s is smooth, high quality leather that feels nice in your hand with a good weight to it. It is really a classy looking piece of technology, and is held shut by hidden magnets. The Kindle case is, as I mentioned earlier, huge. It has a low quality grainy leather that bags away from the piece of cardboard that gives it its structure. The tabs of flimsy leather on the inside, which I think are supposed to protect the inner corners of the kindle from damage, bulge out of the case giving it a real half-assed look. And the closing mechanism on this $400 Kindle? A simple piece of elastic.And that elastic on my husbands kindle is already rolling and stretched.


Durability. Now, you have to have a case so that you do not scratch or damage your $300-$400 toy. Well, no one told Amazon that they might want to make it so that when the case is opened, the Kindle wouldn’t just fall out on the ground! There is only a clip in the back of the case that levers the Kindle in place so that it doesn’t slide around. Bad idea Amazon! The thing is constantly falling out of the case when you would least expect it. So one false moveand BOOM! Your $400 machine is no more. Honestly I am just waiting for that to happen to my husband. And again, in contrast, the Sony is attached to its case and the only way you can get it out is if you read the instruction manual, but I have yet to find a reason to remove it.

Metal vs. Plastic. On top of the Kindle just waiting to become scrap metal on the ground, the thing is not even METAL! It is white plastic. That was a big shock after using the Sony, which IS metal. The plastic of the Kindle furthers the real cheap, low quality feel of it. So whoa to the individual who opens their flimsy case and lets fall their plastic time bomb. What was Amazon thinking?

Button Placement. Now don’t push that button, I have more to say. What’s that? You can’t help but push that button? You must be using a Kindle. The buttons on the Kindle cover the edges of both the right and left side of the device, you
know, where you like to hold it? When you start to read on your Kindle, you have everything just where you want it… until you move that is. Boom! Next page. Wham! Menu page. Pow! Different book entirely! Kaboom! Screen saver! Where am I? The buttons are placed so badly I have to wonder who was in charge of the design of this thing! Oh wait,
what design. The thing is hideous.


Wireless is Overrated. Alright, I have to admit that wireless is pretty good in this day and age, but Amazon
charges every time you send something to your Kindle, and that can add up. With the Sony, you have to plug it into your computer maybe once a month for some new books (you can have over a hundred books on your Sony at any one time. How often will you really be plugging it in?), for 5 minutes at the most. And it’s free.

Cost. Yes, it is true what they say, books from Amazon are a little cheaper on the average, but remember
that there is an extra charge for anything else you may want to send to your device. Plus, if you add the $100 more you paid for the Kindle to begin with… sucker.

Content is Comparable. I read a LOT, and am so happy that these readers are out there. And yes, it does suck to buy a book that then sits in your virtual library forever due to the fact that you can’t sell it due to DRM, but that is true for both devices. No one is going to make it easier for people out there to rip off the authors that spent years creating these wonderful stories, so we have to get used to this. So even though my husband stated that he downloaded books from Creative Commons for free, authors are not going to give their work out for free very often.

To give the Kindle a fair try, I decided to carry it around with me for a few days and read one of my books. That lasted for about one day. As I stated before, the thing is bulky and awkward, and fell out of the case every time I opened it. My Sony on the other hand slides right in to a small pocket in my purse, and guys, that just isn’t going to happen with the Kindle.

Final words, I, as an avid reader, appreciate the Sony’s sleek style and comfortable design. If I wanted one, I would have a Kindle, but the only thing that I can see that is fueling the need for the Kindle is the advertising Amazon has allotted to it. When I carry around the Sony Reader I get comments on it all the time. When I carry the Kindle, people are afraid to ask about the unwieldy monstrosity in my lap. The Kindle is not a good conversation point, until that time when it slips from your hand and smashes on the ground. Then you will hear plenty of painful groans from the people around you who just witnessed the destruction of your wasted $400.

Let us know which device you prefer, and if you post questions we will each chime in with answers.



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March 1, 2008 Posted by | kindle, Uncategorized | , | 12 Comments

Parallels Between Lost and Slaughterhouse Five


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February 28, 2008 Posted by | Television | , , , | 6 Comments

Store Coffee for Maximum Freshness [How To]

Store Coffee for Maximum Freshness [How To]: ”

The Unclutterer blog rounds up the advice of some pretty knowledgeable minds (including go-to food science guru Harold McGee) on the best ways to store coffee, whether as whole beans or ground. The take-away is to never put coffee in your refrigerator, and only store your coffee in the freezer if you can’t use it within two weeks. Otherwise:

From the Joy of Cooking: ‘The best way to store coffee beans, ground or whole, is in an opaque airtight canister at room temperature.’

McGee’s wisdom is to only place whole beans in the freezer, as ground coffee gets stale more quickly in any environment. For more tips on getting your best cup every day, see these tips from a ‘coffee snob.’

(Via Lifehacker.)

January 16, 2008 Posted by | Coffee | | 1 Comment

What To Say When You Call The CEO’s Office [How To]

What To Say When You Call The CEO’s Office [How To]: “

ceoonphone.jpgThis classic article on the art of ‘turboing,’ escalating your problem to the executive’s office, has some great advice about what to say when you get there. Here’s a line Rob Levandowski, himself a former Tier 2 XEROX customer service rep, uses to get his foot in the door once he reaches the CEO’s secretary:

‘Hello, my name is ________. I’m one of your customers, and I was hoping to speak to (CEO’s name) because I’m really getting frustrated with getting a problem resolved, and I know that your company doesn’t want me to feel that way.’

Rob says this works because if they don’t help you, they’re backed into a corner of seeming like they actually do want you angry and frustrated. And despite what articles on this site might otherwise suggest, most people like to go bed at night feeling like they’re good people. The rest of the article is a really great refresher course on how to win when calling executive customer service.

The Art of Turboing [Macwhiz]
(Photo: Getty)

(Via Consumerist.)

January 16, 2008 Posted by | Consumer Protection, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Turn Your $60 Router into a User-Friendly Super-Router with Tomato [Feature]

Many of you know that I run a modified linksys router at the house. I have been using the DD-WRT firmware with great success, but I this new alternative looks interesting:

Turn Your $60 Router into a User-Friendly Super-Router with Tomato [Feature]: “

A year-and-a-half ago, we showed you how to turn your $60 router into a highly configurable $600 router with DD-WRT, a free, open source firmware. Since then there’s been a lot of development of open source firmwares, and today we’re taking a look at my new favorite, a firmware called Tomato. Tomato does almost everything DD-WRT does—from Wi-Fi signal boosting to Quality of Service bandwidth allocation—in addition to offering a simplified interface chock-full of fancy charts and graphs. Sound good? Let’s get started.

Check If Your Router’s Supported

wrt54gl.pngBefore you go upgrading your firmware willy-nilly, be sure to check Tomato’s list of supported devices. The router I’ll be using is the very same router I used for the original DD-WRT guide, this Linksys WRT54GL router. Several of the Linksys WRTG54 series routers are supported, but they aren’t all, so make sure you check your model number. In addition to the pervasive Linksys router, Tomato will also install on some Buffalo, ASUS, and Microsoft routers.

Upgrade Your Router to the Tomato Firmware

So you’ve either ensured that you’re current router is supported or you’ve ordered a new cheap one off the internet? Then it’s time to upgrade that router to Tomato. First, go download the latest Tomato firmware (as of this writing, that’s version 1.13). You’ll download a 7zip archive, so use your favorite unarchiver (may I suggest 7-Zip), and extract the contents to an easy-to-find folder on your desktop.

Now you’ll need to log into your current router to upgrade. This process may vary slightly depending on what router you’re using and the firmware it’s running, but for the most part it’s very simple. You can go through the old DD-WRT step-by-step here if you’re using a Linksys router with the default firmware (just replace DD-WRT with Tomato and quit after step 2). Below I’ll describe the simple update process from DD-WRT to Tomato (which is virtually the same as it would be for any other router with one small difference).

First, point your browser to, the default admin page for your router. If your router has a username/password set, you’ll need to enter it to continue. Next you need to navigate to the firmware upgrade section of your router’s admin panel. In both DD-WRT and the default Linksys firmware, you’ll click the Administration tab followed by the Firmware Upgrade tab. Now just click the Browse button and direct your router to the appropriate firmware file for your router in the folder you unzipped earlier.

upgrade%20from%20dd-wrt.pngSee the README file included in the Tomato_1_13 folder to determine which version you’ll need to choose at this point. If you’re using the same WRT54GL router as I am, pick the file named WRT54G_WRT54GL.bin. Now just click the upgrade button and wait. Be sure not to turn off your router during this upgrade.

reset-router-button.pngWhen it’s finished, you’re ready to start using Tomato. (Pretty simple, right?) Point your browser back to and log with ‘admin’ (without quotes) as both your username and password. If you upgraded from DD-WRT, this may not be working for you. If the login isn’t working off the bat, you’ve got one more thing to do: Perform a hard reset on your router. To do so, just find the little Reset button and the back of your router, then press and hold it for a few seconds. When your router comes back online, the ‘admin’ username and password should work.

Boost Your Wi-Fi Signal

There’s a lot you can do now that you’re running Tomato on your router, but let’s go straight to one of the sexiest tweaks supported by Tomato: Wi-Fi signal boosting. Just click on Advanced -> Wireless in the Tomato sidebar and find the entry labeled Transmit Power. The default transmit power is 42mW, but it’s capable of transmitting at up to 251mW.

Tomato is a little low on documentation on this subject (okay, so it’s low on documentation all-around), but the DD-WRT documentation suggests that an increase of up to 70mW would be ‘suitable for most users.’ A boost much above that could cause heat issues and considerably decrease the life of your router.

I can’t attest to the certainty of damage beyond what the DD-WRT documentation says, but here is what I can tell you: I’ve been running my router with DD-WRT for over a year transmitting at 70mW, haven’t seen any hiccups in performance and so far have seen no smoke. Even better, my Wi-Fi signal easily reaches to every corner of my apartment.

Track Your Bandwidth Usage, Set Quality of Service Rules, and More

From this point on, if there’s something you want to do with your router, chances are Tomato can do it for you. In particular the bandwidth logging is both attractive and handy, allowing you to track bandwidth usage in real-time, over the last 24 hours, or with daily, weekly, or monthly reports. Real-Time Bandwidth Monitoring.png

A few weeks back I showed you how to set up Quality of Service rules on your DD-WRT router to ensure you don’t drop Skype calls, lag on Xbox Live, and generally get your bandwidth when and where you need it. Tomato does all the same while providing even more granular control over how much bandwidth goes where… and, like the bandwidth reports, it graphs it all. qos-graphs.png

If you’ve assigned a domain name to your home server (like, Tomato can send alerts to the service if you’ve got a dynamic IP address so that the domain will always point to your computer—even if your external IP address changes.

For a few other worthwhile uses, check out these videos for setting up Tomato’s Access Restriction rules (allows you to set up rules to block browsing of certain topics at certain times, for example), using the Bandwidth Monitor, and putting your router into Wireless Client mode.

As I said above, documentation on Tomato is slim, but this Tomato wiki is a good place to start if you want to figure out a feature.

So Which Is Better, Tomato or DD-WRT?

After reading this, you may have noticed that Tomato shares a lot of features with DD-WRT; if you did, you’re probably wondering which is better. Honestly, the two firmwares are both excellent—you won’t go wrong running either. DD-WRT has a slightly more robust feature set and a bit more polish in the layout of the admin, but most features that you’ll find in DD-WRT that are not in Tomato are features most home users will never use. Both do Quality of Service (in fact, we’ve already gone step-by-step through how to set up QoS in DD-WRT), though Tomato seems to do it a bit better; both can boost your Wi-Fi signal; and both will transform your router into something much better than it was before you started. At the moment I prefer Tomato for the simplicity of its layout, the excellent bandwidth monitoring tools, and of course, it’s attractive charts. If you’re a DD-WRT or Tomato fan, let’s hear which you prefer and why in the comments.

Adam Pash is a senior editor for Lifehacker who can’t get enough of a good router. His special feature Hack Attack appears weekly on Lifehacker. Subscribe to the Hack Attack RSS feed to get new installments in your newsreader.

(Via Lifehacker.)

January 16, 2008 Posted by | Hacks | 1 Comment