Entries from May 2006 ↓

The Mystery of Delayed Magazines

Have you ever wondered why you can buy almost anything over the Internet and it will show up on your doorstep in a few days, but if you place a magazine subscription, your first issue might not arrive for three months? Well, I have. I always thought that if you start a subscription for a monthly magazine, having to wait any longer than a month for your first issue to arrive means the publisher is just being lazy.

Of course, there’s more to it than that. Brian D. Foy, editor of The Perl Review, explains that the long delay is due to the extremely short shelf life of magazines. Unlike books, DVDs, and other products you can buy online, magazines can’t be stocked up in a warehouse somewhere. If a publisher prints too many copies of an issue, the unsold copies are money down the drain. To avoid this problem, publishers give a long lead time for each issue so they know exactly how many copies will actually sell.

Foy describes the situation in more detail in his response to Erica Sadun’s blog posting:

What you’re seeing is the long lead up in the production cycle to actually preparing an issue. Big magazine publishers typically have their subscription lists processed a couple months before an issue is due to be mailed. You’ll notice the same lag if you try to change your address. This is also why they start sending you renewal notices so early. Several other factors impact this, too, none of which the publisher likes.

For the two weeks, that’s probably just the normal batch processing. Instead of sending every new transaction immediately, they send a bunch at once. Not only that, there are several middle men. You buy the subscription through Amazon, but Amazon is getting it from a distributor. The distributor in turn has to then pass that stuff on to the publisher. There are a lot of market inefficiencies in the process. Publishers hate all of this but have to tolerate it because they can’t do it themselves. Amazon doesn’t want to deal with publishers individually, so publishers are stuck with distributors. Distributors want to make as much money as possible, so they do things as cheaply as possible. This is the same situation for buying a book through Amazon too, although distributors such as Ingram can stockpile books in warehouses. Magazines can’t do that, as I’ll explain in a moment.

If you want something faster, order it directly from the source to cut out the middle men. Mother Nature can send you things quickly because they have the product ready to go. Magazines don’t work the same way since they have to rely of all those middle men, making their margin quite thin. Their business model is completely different. That’s also why the direct subscription rates are so low: the money that would go to the middle men is taken off the price.

Along with that, various postal regulations come into play. If you look closely at most magazines, you’ll see a declaration outlining their print run, how many copies went to subscribers, how many to newsstands, and so on. The percentages of those numbers relative to the total print run matters to the Post Office, so the publisher tries to keep them as high as possible. That means they don’t print more than they are going to need (plus a little extra) and that there isn’t a big stack of them lying around. The lifespan of a copy of a magazine is very short, unlike books or other products. If you don’t buy it within the period that it’s current, it’s no longer sellable. That’s part of the reason they process their lists a couple months ahead of time: they have to plan their print run. Unsold magazines cost them the same as the sold ones, but bring in no revenue. Publishers have to minimize that cost if they want to survive.

Now, once they have their print run planned, they have to report their rate base (that’s basically how many people pay to get the magazine) to advertisers. Advertisers care about how many people are going to see their ad, and most magazines can’t live without the ad revenue. When I sell an ad, the advertiser wants to know how many people are going to see it. It’s one of the first questions they ask. Of course, advertisers want to pay as little as possible. Along with that, there are auditing organizations (such as the BPA, that verify all of those numbers. Again, there’s some lead time there because they have to know the subscriber base well in advance to sell the ads.

So there you have it. The mystery of delayed magazines has finally been solved! Publishers aren’t being lazy; they’re being frugal.

Firefly… finally!

I must be the only geek in the English-speaking world who’s never seen even a single second of the Firefly TV series. (My excuse: I was in Japan when it first aired.)


I finally fixed that problem by renting the series on DVD from Greencine. I just watched the first episode this evening, and I was quite impressed. Some notes:

  • Exciting story, interesting characters, fine acting, great special effects (especially for a TV show), solid pacing.
  • All-around top-notch production quality. Bonus: It appears to have been shot in HDTV. Very progressive for a 2002 show!
  • Firefly is one of the few (only?) sci-fi shows that is set in outer space but has no aliens. (Not in the first episode, anyway.) I’m not sure if I like that or not.
  • Whenever the camera cuts to a wide angle from space to observe a ship blasting off, there are absolutely no sound effects. This should make those who complain about realism in certain other sci-fi shows very happy.
  • Why is it that whenever a spaceship visits some far-away planet, it happens to possess an Earth-like atmosphere and bear a striking resemblance to southern California?


Firefly in southern California

All in all, this is a series no self-respecting sci-fi fan should miss. I wish I had gotten around to seeing it sooner.

Treo 700p Announced

The Treo 650 has been my constant companion for the past year-and-half. (Come to think of it, it’s with me more than my wife is!) It’s my cell phone, my calendar and to-do list manager, it gives me turn-by-turn driving directions and Internet access wherever I go, and it even trounces me at chess. But that doesn’t mean I don’t want something better. The rumor mill has said for many months now that someday Palm would release a new and improved smartphone, the Treo 700p. Well, today is that day.

Treo 700p

Looking at the specs, this new Treo is mostly identical to my old 650:

  • Same screen (320×320 pixels)
  • Same processor (312MHz Intel)
  • Same operating system (Palm OS 5.4)
  • Still no Wi-Fi support (a lot of people complain about this, but I’ve never understood the need for Wi-Fi on the Treo)

But there are some welcome differences:

  • Four times as much memory (128 MB vs. 32 MB), although supposedly only 60 MB are available to the user
  • Slightly better Bluetooth (version 1.2 vs. 1.1), which should mean slightly faster speeds and fewer interference problems. This will be nice to have when syncing and when using the Treo for dial-up networking.
  • And speaking of dial-up networking, the 700p has a 1xEV-DO radio instead of the old 1xRTT, which means Internet access should be a lot faster. (This is probably the single biggest difference between the 700p and the 650.)
  • Higher-resolution camera (1.3 megapixels vs. 0.3 megapixels), although this doesn’t matter to me since I always use a real camera for taking pictures
  • Slightly different form factor (but identical to the previously released 700w). I like the bigger buttons and slightly modified layout, but I’m not sure about the squarish-looking keys.
  • Built-in voice memo application (not sure whether I’ll use this)

All in all, there’s enough here to get me to upgrade, especially considering the improved Internet access speed. (It’s so nice when you’re stuck in a hotel room and you can connect your laptop to the net just by pushing a few keys on your phone.)My wife will now get my Treo 650 as a hand-me-down. Now, don’t complain; her old phone was a low-end Nokia candybar model with no Bluetooth support. With the 650, she’ll finally be able to use our wireless headset and avoid those neck cramps she gets during long calls.

Mac OS X oil paintings

Gautam Rao, the “Playful Painter,” has produced a series of oil-on-masonite paintings of the Macintosh experience. I present two of them here, along with the pixels that Rao used as his source material.


Dock Painting

Original pixels

Original pixels


Mac Painting II

Original pixels

Original pixels

Both paintings are currently for sale on eBay.


I get several hundred pieces of spam each day. I don’t know the exact amount because most of it is tossed into the bit bucket by SpamAssassin, never to return. Of the few dozen that get past SpamAssassin, almost all are caught by the Bayesian filter I use. But statistical filters aren’t perfect, of course, so every few days I go through my junk folder to check for false positives.

From this experience, I know that spam subject lines can be the most bizarre, obscene, and just plain weirdest bits of English prose in the universe. This is partly due to the fact that spammers sometimes use computer programs to generate random subject lines (with unexpected results). I occasionally find myself chuckling at the wild subjects of the spam I receive.

A man named Steven Frank apparently had gone through this same experience. But instead of simply deleting the spam, he took it to the next level by creating Spamusement, a gallery of cartoons based on actual spam subject lines. He simply takes a spam subject line and brings it to life in cartoon form, usually with a hilarious twist that you’d never expect. A sample:



Warning: Like most spam, Spamusement is not family-oriented.

Stupid Email Disclaimers

I get a lot of email from people asking for help getting on the Internet with their Treo 650. One such email came to my inbox today, but attached to the bottom of it was yet another one of those stupid email disclaimers. Email disclaimers are wrong for so many reasons, but this one took the cake:

this e-mail contains intelectual property & confidential information belonging to the sender/reciever, which is protected by the physician/patient privilege & WIPO laws and treaties. this information is intended only for the use of the individual(s) named above. if you are not the intended recipient, you are here by notified that any disclosure, copying, distribution, utilization or the taking of any action in reliance on the contents of this information is prosecutable by law. members of medical management office solutions, llc maintains the legal right to protect its concepts, ideas and utilization, implementation of such concepts and ideas as enforceable by law. if you have received this transmission in error, please notify the sender immediately.

Normally when I get a disclaimer like this, as a matter of principle, I simply reply to the sender and tell them that I refuse to help them unless they can correspond with me minus the pointless legal mumbo jumbo. After all, why should I help someone who’s making legal threats against me and might take me to court should I allow their “confidential” email fall into the wrong hands?

But when I noticed that the author of this intellectual-sounding disclaimer misspelled “intellectual,” I just had to respond with a disclaimer of my own. At the bottom of my reply to him, I added the following text:

Unless you are named “Arnold P. Fasnock,” you may read only the odd-numbered words (every other word beginning with the first) of the message above. If you have violated this notice, you hereby owe the sender, Trevor Harmon, $10 for each even-numbered word you have read.

That felt good.