Picture Perfect


People who prize the best television picture quality available were dismayed when manufacturers discontinued plasma television sets in 2014, leaving them only the option of Organic Light Emitting Diode (OLED) television sets with comparable, or even better, picture quality, but at ten times the price. Prices on OLED sets have come down since 2014, though not to the level of plasma sets, which sold for under $1,000 as they were going out of production. The lowest price on an OLED set is still over $2,000.


Prior to the 1990s, consumers had essentially one option for television set technology, the Cathode Ray Tube (CRT). There were projection television setups available which never amounted to more than a small niche segment of the market. The CRT was capable of excellent picture quality in the areas of color fidelity, contrast, and deep black levels, but it was hampered by poor resolution and practical limitations on picture size because of its bulky form. The poor resolution was primarily an artifact of the television signal available from mid-century through the 1980s at least, and when high definition television signals became widely available after the turn of the century, it was theoretically possible for CRT sets to remain in production with the capability of resolving the high definition signal, however there was still the problem of increasing screen size without the set becoming impractically deep as well.

3 inch TV set
A 3 inch TV set receiver. Photo from The Library of Virginia.

Of the television set technologies competing to replace CRT after the turn of the century – Liquid Crystal Display (LCD), rear projection and front projection, and plasma – LCD emerged as the sets capable of widest distribution because of their lower prices and variety of screen sizes, while both types of projection sets remained niche products, and plasma became the choice of videophiles who didn’t care for the fuss and expense of projection sets. All was well then for plasma set buyers until manufacturers looked ahead to the production of ultra high definition, or 4K, sets after 2010, and the manufacturers of plasma sets, primarily Panasonic, Samsung, and LG, found that it would be difficult to create a plasma set capable of 4K resolution, while the other technologies, including the newcomer OLED, were more amenable. One by one the manufacturers dropped out of producing plasma sets.

In this scene from the 1997 Robert Zemeckis film Contact, with Jodie Foster, an alien race bounces back to Earth the first television signal it intercepted from our planet. Warning: foul language.

The more than acceptable replacement for plasma when it came to picture quality was OLED, and when users of plasma sets needed to replace them eventually they could turn to that option rather than to LCD ultra high definition sets, which had improved over the years but still had their shortcomings reproducing a cinema quality picture. The problem with OLED was the high price, a problem caused partially by LG for some time being the only major producer of the sets. Sony and Samsung have started producing sets, and their competition may induce more significant price drops in the next year than have taken place since plasma sets went out of production in 2104. When it comes to buying technology products, and particularly the television sets of the past twenty years, it takes a keen eye for the markets to know – or rather to guess well – when to take the leap and buy without feeling suckered because the very next fiscal quarter the bottom dropped out of the price, and that $3,000 television in the living room is now selling for less than $1,000 at the big box stores. In any case, the picture quality of an OLED 4K television set would have been unimaginable even twenty years ago, and each person accounts its value differently.
— Techly


Stupid Is as Stupid Does


Supporters of the current president gathered outside the State Capitol building in Phoenix, Arizona, on January 25, to protest immigration reform measures being debated by state legislators. They undercut any interest in their arguments by badgering and hectoring brown skinned legislators, state office workers, and even schoolchildren on a field trip as they walked in the vicinity of the Capitol, presumptively proclaiming them illegal aliens, while giving white skinned folks a pass. They reached the epitome of their belligerent ignorance when one of them challenged the citizenship status of State Representative Eric Descheenie, a Native American of Navajo descent.


Besides the ignorance of challenging such a person on his right to be here, there is the sheer gall of doing so. The ignorance has always been there with some people, but the gall has risen to the surface lately on account of how emboldened they feel by the angry rhetoric of their Supreme Leader in the White House. Many of these particular protesters in Phoenix were armed, as well, and their allies in the police stood idly by while they harassed the targets of their hatred.

Mexican Cession
1848 Mexican Cession of territory after the Mexican-American War. 2008 map by Kballen.

Viceroyalty of the New Spain 1819 (without Philippines)
The Viceroyalty of New Spain in 1819. 2013 map by Giggette.

The police were supposedly studiously allowing the protesters room to express themselves freely, as guaranteed by the First Amendment to the Constitution. Strange how the ideology of protesters seems to affect how the police enforce First Amendment rights, though of course nothing can be proven. A similarly scrupulous desire for allowance of free expression strangely affected law enforcement at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, last August, and that after an incident in July in Charlottesville when the cops tear gassed for no very good reason counter protesters at a KKK gathering.

Since self-reflection and a balanced view of history are traits that are probably either non-existent or very low on the list for some of the denser supporters of the Ignoramus-in-Chief, any appeal here will fall only on their deaf ears, if at all, and the words will serve merely as preaching to the choir. Nevertheless, on the principle that a trickle of water may eventually lead to a baptism, it is worth a try. Has the schizophrenic nature of Republican anti-immigrant rhetoric never struck a discordant chord with any of these Know Nothings? The fact that their economic betters in the Republican establishment, the ones who back their Supreme Leader behind the scenes solely on account of his capacity to put yet more money in their pockets, have no desire to change current immigration policy because it suits their business interests to have cheap, exploitable labor. It has always been so.

From the 1994 Robert Zemeckis film Forrest Gump, Tom Hanks as the title character repeats a bit of received wisdom, “Stupid is as stupid does”.
Economically and politically the beliefs of the protesters at the Arizona Capitol will never get anywhere because they fly in the face of the moneyed interests who pull all the strings. So what is it all for, then? Blowing off steam from the angry white European descent base of the new hard right Republicans. The rich ones aren’t angry; they have no reason to be, since they are getting everything they want. It’s the people stuck in the economic levels below that who are angry. Why don’t they get angry with the people above them who are ripping them off? Good question, but one for a different day. They are angry with the people they see supplanting them as the most important demographic in this country, fragmenting solid white bread into hundreds of permutations of bagels and tortillas and pita pockets, many of them gluten-free.


Why do they vent their hatred and anger on brown skinned immigrants? Who else is left? The economic and political arguments of the anti-immigrant crowd largely fall apart under scrutiny, at least they do if this country is to continue to operate under the same principles it has going back hundreds of years, when the ancestors of the current anti-immigrants made their way here with little government interference and then, with the active encouragement of the government, violently shouldered aside the indigenous peoples who had been here thousands of years before them. It is a dangerous game that Republican leaders are playing, however, standing aside to let the angry base blow steam so that the moneyed interests can loot the country while everyone is distracted. They are counting on the casualties falling among groups they care nothing about other than their utility to them, such as liberals and immigrants. The people steering the Thief-in-Chief and his hard core minions around like a crazed nozzle spitting vituperation need to understand, though, that high pressure steam has a history of escaping control and blowing up in everyone’s faces.
— Vita

Early indian west
Early Native American tribal territories, superimposed on the present day western United States. 1970 map by the U.S. Department of the Interior, Geological Survey. Where’s Arizona, and where are all the white folks of European descent?


Name Your Price


Now that Christmas is past, shoppers will be out looking for bargains as retailers slash prices in an attempt to clear inventory off their books before the end of the year. That brings up the subject of pricing, which beyond the obvious need to cover costs and generate profits, leaves some leeway in the ongoing, never ending psychological games between sellers and buyers.


Why $9.99 instead of $10.00? What about the typesetting of that $9.99? Is $9.99 better? How about 9.99, dropping entirely the suggestion that the seller is asking for real money from the buyer? Gas stations price fuel at even finer increments, using tenths of a cent, such as $2.299/10 per gallon. These pricing systems seem like they have been around forever, and it’s surprising to learn they are no older than 150 years, and in the case of gasoline pricing no older than the 1920s or 1930s.

1894 - Koch & Shankweiler Newspaper Ad2 Allentown PA
An 1894 newspaper advertisement for Koch & Shankweiler clothiers in Allentown, Pennsylvania. The fractional pricing is almost all in quarter dollar increments.

Retailers started pricing items at fractions of a dollar rather than rounding the price to the nearest dollar in the late nineteenth century partly in response to inflation which raised their costs past one dollar for many things, and partly to convey to shoppers that they were getting a bargain. When inflation raised the cost of most items in a department store past a dollar, some retailers responded by rounding up the price to the consumer to the next dollar, while others retained fractions in their pricing. Eventually the retailers who retained fractions found they sold more than the retailers who rounded up, and the same principle applied to items within their own stores where they tried the different tactics. For reasons that psychologists and sellers dispute to this day, buyers like fractions of a dollar in pricing, and they respond by purchasing those items over the ones that are priced at rounded dollars, even though those prices may be only one cent higher.

Vintage Radio Advertising - Crosley Radio, "Crosely Again Lowers Prices", "Big Reduction in Famous Trirdyn and Other Radios", From the Literary Digest, January 17, 1925 (9700961943)
A Crosley Radio advertisement in a 1925 edition of The Literary Digest. Prices were at whole dollars or at half dollar fractions, underscoring how even in the early twentieth century fractional pricing was uncommon. Photo from Flickr user Joe Haupt.

At first retailers thought fractional pricing attracted bargain shoppers, and therefore they used the tactic principally for sale items. By the 1920s, however, fractional pricing became commonplace throughout retail marketing, regardless of whether items were on sale or not. The one area where sellers rarely use fractional pricing is for high profile, luxury items, presumably because those shoppers look down on bargain hunting, and because at a certain high dollar amount adding a fraction to the end of the price becomes ludicrous. The only aspect that needed fine tuning was the exact fraction that worked best as a compromise for sellers and buyers. It appears that fractions in the ninetieth percentile have worked best, which is why prices at half dollar fractions, which were once popular, are rarer now than they once were.

As for gas stations’ pricing fuel down to tenths of a cent, that practice dates to the 1920s and 1930s when government entities first started taxing gasoline to raise money for road building and maintenance. The government taxed the fuel sellers, and the sellers passed the cost on to consumers. When gasoline cost ten or fifteen cents per gallon as it did in those times, it made sense to fine tune fractional pricing down to tenths of a cent. The business of selling gasoline retail has always run on slim margins, which is why those businesses have always diversified, first by offering automobile mechanical services, and now more commonly by selling convenience items at a high markup. Gasoline retailers have learned that consumers will drive a mile down the road to save a penny a gallon on fuel, and since the gasoline on offer is essentially a loss leader for the higher priced items the retailer sells, it makes sense even in these times of fuel prices in the range of dollars for retailers to retain the tenth of a cent fractional pricing that could make the difference in their profitability from month to month.

The 1980 comedy Used Cars, directed by Robert Zemeckis, included this television advertisement for one way of dealing with high prices. Note that the Mercedes luxury car price is rounded to $24,000. Warning: foul language.

The latest development in the continuing tug of war between sellers and buyers that deserves mention is the one in which grocers have challenged the math skills of shoppers beyond simply rounding fractions off to the nearest dollar by posing more complicated division skills, such as 4/10.00, 5/12.50, or 10/16.90. These are not terribly difficult math problems, and many people would not need a calculator to figure them out. This pricing ploy is instead an attempt by the retailer to get the consumer to buy more of the item not only by suggesting it is a great value, but also by confusion over what the price is per unit.

Particularly when the consumer has to compare one item priced in such a manner to a similar item priced in the same way, the laziness and confusion of the shopper works to the advantage of the retailer. In that case, even buyers who do not have a calculator with them should take comfort in understanding that by law in most places they do not have to pick up the suggested amount in order to take advantage of the advertised price. A “Buy one, bet one free” promotion, for example, does not necessarily require the shopper to pick up two items in order to receive the benefit of buying only one item at half price. As always, however, caveat emptor – buyer beware – and check with the store manager to be sure of the applicable policy.
― Vita


Walk the Walk


In Stanley Kubrick’s 1987 movie Full Metal Jacket, two marines engage in an ironic “John Wayne” face-off. Wayne’s chickenhawkish stances were well-known and widely held in contempt by combat veterans from World War II to Vietnam. Warning: foul language.


America’s wars continue with no end in sight, from one presidential administration to the next. One proposal to curtail the corporate oligarchy’s military adventurism is to bring back the military draft or to institute Universal National Service, the idea being that if a greater percentage of the population has a personal stake in foreign policy then they will be more likely to make their preferences known to their leaders, and people with a personal stake are less likely to want more war. The oligarchy knows this, too, as it’s a lesson they learned from an aroused public during the Vietnam War and are unlikely to want repeated if the public reawakens.


Since the draft ended in 1973, the per capita percentage of the population serving in the military has steadily declined, while the number of American military interventions overseas has drastically increased. Linking the two trends could be coincidental, but it’s worth considering that in the 40 years from 1933 to 1973, in most of which there was a draft, the US sent the military abroad on 27 occasions, and in the 40 years from 1974 to 2014 the US sent the military on 175 different foreign interventions. Has the world really become 6.5 times more dangerous since 1973? Or is it that the US has taken on in earnest the burden and profits of empire and the role of world policeman, putting out small fires everywhere, many times at the behest of corporate interests?

I spent 33 years and four months in active military service and during that period I spent most of my time as a high class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism. I helped make Mexico and especially Tampico safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street. I helped purify Nicaragua for the International Banking House of Brown Brothers in 1902-1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for the American sugar interests in 1916. I helped make Honduras right for the American fruit companies in 1903. In China in 1927 I helped see to it that Standard Oil went on its way unmolested. Looking back on it, I might have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate his racket in three districts. I operated on three continents.

― Marine Major General (Retired) Smedley Butler, writing in the
Socialist newspaper Common Sense in 1935.


The 1994 Robert Zemeckis movie Forrest Gump is an excellent portrayal of the diversity of experience awaiting Vietnam era draftees, though of course most of them did not want to be there. Warning: foul language.
The majority of Americans catch the news about these numerous foreign conflicts as they go about their daily business, and because they don’t know anyone in the military and didn’t serve themselves, the news pretty much goes in one ear and out the other. Who can get agitated or even interested about what’s happening in Kosovo or Libya or Yemen or the Horn of Africa, wherever that is? Afghanistan and Iraq, oh yeah, are those still dragging on? Are we going into Syria now, too? And so these busy Americans go on with their lives, paying their taxes and going shopping, surprised to learn that when the US deploys Predator drones to these foreign hot spots, the controllers of the deadly drones sit in air-conditioned trailers halfway around the world in Nevada or Germany. It’s the New Age, alright, a deadly video game.


Or so we might choose to believe. As technocratic and bloodless as the military brass and the politicians may try to make modern war seem in order to make it more palatable for the general public, it will always nevertheless be a nasty mess both physically and morally. They don’t want to show that part, though; they learned that lesson from Vietnam as well. Rah-rah Hollywood movies are not the answer to getting Americans to come to terms with their current situation in world politics. Far from it. There are far too many chickenhawks making movies in Hollywood and making policy in Washington to serve anything but the basest emotions of too many Americans, the “summer soldiers and sunshine patriots” among them, who are stirred to cheer movies glorifying war and the macho posturing of Supreme Leader. As long as they reflexively say “Thank you for your service” to a service member or veteran when they encounter one, they’re covered. Aren’t they?
― Ed.

An early scene in Full Metal Jacket depicts Marine boot camp in a less lighthearted vein than the boot camp of Forrest Gump. Some of that can be attributed to the differences between the Marines and the Army, and some to the aims of the two films. Nonetheless, some of the drill sergeant’s insults will ring bells in the dark sense of humor shared by many veterans, an emotion Kubrick effectively turns inside out at the end of the scene. Warning: foul language, of course.