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docdaveMy given name is David. Family members still call me that. Everybody else calls me Doc. Since people often ask me where that nickname came from, and since apparently I haven’t answered it anywhere I can now find online, here’s the story.

Thousands of years ago, in the mid-1970s, I worked at a little radio station owned by Duke University called WDBS. (A nice history of the station survives, in instant-loading 1st generation html, here. I also give big hat tip to Bob Chapman for talking Duke into buying the station in 1971, when he was still a student there.)

As signals went, WDBS was a shrub in grove of redwoods: strong in Duke’s corner of Durham, a bit weak in Chapel Hill, and barely audible in Raleigh—the three corners of North Carolina’s Research Triangle. (One of those redwoods, WRAL, was audible, their slogan bragged, “from Hatteras to Hickory,” which is about 320 miles as the crow flies.)

As a commercial station, WDBS had to sell advertising. This proved so difficult that we made up ads for stuff that didn’t exist. That, in addition to selling ads, was my job. The announcer’s name I used for many of the ads, plus other humorous features, was Doctor Dave. It wasn’t a name I chose. Bob Conroy did that. I also had a humorous column under the same name for the station’s monthly arts guide, with the image above at the top of the page. That one was created by Ray Simone.

Ray and David Hodskins, another WDBS listener, later approached me with the idea of starting an ad agency, which we did: Hodskins Simone & Searls. Since we already had a David, everybody at the agency called me Doctor Dave, which quickly abbreviated to Doc. Since my social network in business far exceeded all my other ones, the name stuck. And there you have it.


I’ve hated rating people ever since I first encountered the practice. That was where everybody else does too: in school.

After all, rating people is what schools do, with tests and teachers’ evaluations. They do it because they need to sort students into castes. What’s school without a bell curve?

As John Taylor Gatto put it in the Seven Lesson Schoolteacher, the job of the educator in our industrialized education system is to teach these things, regardless of curricular aspirations or outcomes:

  1. confusion
  2. class position
  3. indifference
  4. emotional dependency
  5. intellectual dependency
  6. provisional self-esteem
  7. that you can’t hide

It’s no different in machine-run “social sharing” systems such as we get from Uber, Lyft and Airbnb. In all those systems we are asked to rate the people who share their cars and homes, and they are asked to rate us. The hidden agenda behind this practice is the same as the one Gatto describes above.

I bring this up because yesterday my wife and I had our first less-than-ideal shared ride. To spare everyone involved, I won’t say whether it was with Uber or Lyft, or where the ride went. I will say the ride is normally around half an hour, and we’ve taken the same ride dozens of times.

First, the driver didn’t help us load our two heavy bags into the trunk of his car, which had a lot of loose crap in it.(And, to be fair, lots of shared-ride drivers have a collection of their own stuff in the trunk.) Maybe he declined because there was heavy traffic and we all needed to get a move on, or he didn’t see the bags; but let’s just say that wasn’t normal, or what drivers usually do when picking up people with sizable luggage.

Soon as we were on the road, he asked if we’d mind if he stopped at an ATM, because he needed money for tolls. Seems his EZ-Pass transponder had a problem and needed to be sent in and exchanged, so he was operating without it. We said okay and took a slow parallel highway where he hoped an ATM could be found. He eventually found one at a gas station mini-mart, but the machine had a problem that took about 20 minutes, during which we just sat in the car.

After he got the money, we found our way back to the main toll road, and eventually to our destination. At one point on the toll road I reminded him that he should get a receipt for the toll he paid in cash. At our destination he did get out of the car to help with our bags, but I had already removed them from the trunk.

The whole ride took an hour and thirty two minutes, according to the Moves app on my phone. Since it was rush hour, I’d say the ride took about 45 minutes longer than it should have.

So that’s the down side.

The upside was that he seemed to be a genuinely good guy, trying to make a living and dealing with the world. He recently moved into the area to seek work as a recording engineer: a skill he learned recently at a trade school after tiring of an earlier career as a technician for a mobile phone company. His wife is pregnant with their first child, and they are struggling to make ends meet, which is why he was felt he had to work giving rides, even though he lacked two essential conveniences: an EZ-Pass or enough cash.

He had a lot of interesting things to say about working for Uber and Lyft (he drives for both), what makes a good or a bad ride (he’s had both as a passenger), and whether telling the story of their coming baby would make a good YouTube mini-documentary or podcast. We also talked about history, architecture, culture and travel. He speaks Spanish as well as English and would like to go to Spain someday. He also apologized for the delays, and thanked me for understanding his situation. (Or situations.) And I gave him a tip. (Which I always do, at least in the U.S.)

So, while the ride itself wasn’t great, the conversation was one of the better ones I’ve had with a driver. And I wanted to support the guy’s work.

But I couldn’t not rate the guy, or I wouldn’t be able to get a receipt or book the next ride. So I gave him four stars out of five. That’s the first time I’ve given any driver less than five stars. When I clicked on the fourth star, the app said what you see in the screen shot (from my phone) above. “Okay, could be better” was about right. Still, I would much rather have said nothing—or to have sent a note to the company. Anything but giving the guy some number of stars.

And no, I don’t know a better way. I am just sure that rating people is icky, and would rather say nothing than stroke or damn somebody with a star.



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shot this picture with my phone on the subway last night, while no less absorbed in my personal rectangle than everyone else on the subway (and I do mean everyone) was with theirs.

I don’t know what the other passengers were doing on their rectangles, though it’s not hard to guess. In my case it was spinning through emails, texting, tweeting, checking various other apps (weather, navigation, calendar) and listening to podcasts.

We shape our tools and then they shape us. That’s was and remains Marshall McLuhan‘s main point. The us is both singular and plural. We get shaped, and so do our infrastructures, societies, governments and the rest of what we do in the civilized world. (Here’s an example of all four of those happening at once: People won’t stop staring at their phones, so a Dutch town put traffic lights on the ground. From Quartz.)

Two years from now, most of the phones used by people in this shot will be traded in, discarded or re-purposed. But will we remain just as tethered to Apple, Google, Facebook, Amazon, telcos and the other feudal overlords* that sell us our rectangles and connect to the world? (*A metaphor we owe to Bruce Schneier.)

The deeper question is whether we’ll be dependent serfs to sovereigns with silos or self-sovereign as free-range human beings in truly open societies.

The answer will probably be some combination of both. In the meantime, however, one clear need is for greater independence and agency, at least at the individual level. (There are similar needs at the social, political and economic spheres as well, but let’s keep this personal.)

Obsolescence will help.

Within the next two years (just like the last two and the two before that), most phones will do less old-fashioned telephony, text, audio and video, and much more cool (and perhaps scary) new shit (VR, AI, IA, CX and other two-letter acronyms, to name a few off the top of my head and my screen).

Just as surely they’ll also give us new ways to shape what we do and be shaped as well. Perhaps by then mass media will finish getting turning into the mess media it actually is already, though we don’t call it that yet.

One big Hmm is What comes after phone use spreads beyond ubiquity (when most of us have multiple rectangles)?

Everything gets obsolesced, one way or another. That doesn’t mean it goes away. It just means something else comes along that’s better for the main purpose, while the obsolesced tech still hangs around in a subordinated, subsumed or specialized state. Print did that to script, Radio did that to print, TV did it to radio, and the Net is doing it to damn near every other medium we can name, subsuming them all and stretching their effects to the absolute limit by eliminating the distances between everything while pushing costs toward zero. (See The Giant Zero for more on that.)

Thus, while all our asses still sit on Earth in physical space, our digital selves float weightlessly in a non-space with no gravity or distance. Since progress is the process by which the miraculous becomes mundane, we already experience these two states non-ironically and all at once. Even this isn’t new. Here’s what I wrote about it in The Intention Economy, published in 2012:

Story #1. It’s 2002, and the kid is seven. As always, he’s full of questions. As sometimes happens, I don’t have an answer. But this time he comes back with a simple demand:

“Look it up,” he says.

“I can’t. I’m driving.”

“Look it up anyway.”

“I need a computer for that.”


Story #2. It’s 2007, and we are staying overnight in the house of an old family friend. In a guest bedroom is a small portable 1970’s-vintage black-and-white TV. On the front of the TV are a volume control and two tuning dials: one for channels 2-13, the other for 14-83. The kid examines the device for a minute or two and says, “What is this?” I say it’s a TV. He points at the two dials and asks, “Then what are these for?”

Progress is how the miraculous becomes mundane. The beauty of stars would be legend, Emerson said, if they only showed through the clouds but once every thousand years. What would he have made of commercial aviation, a system by which millions of people fly all over the globe, every day, leaping continents and oceans in just a few hours, while complaining of bad food and slow service, and shutting their windows to block light from the clouds below so they can watch a third-rate movie with bad sound on a tiny screen?

The Internet is a sky of stars we’ve made for ourselves (and of ourselves), all just a few clicks away.

McLuhan says the effects of every new medium can be understood through four questions he calls a tetrad, illustrated this way:


Put a new medium in the middle and then sort effects into the four corners by answering a question for each:

  1. What does the medium enhance?
  2. What does the medium make obsolete?
  3. What does the medium retrieve that had been obsolesced earlier?
  4. What does the medium reverse or flip into when pushed to extremes?

These are posed as questions because they should help us understand what’s going on, not so we can come up with perfect or final answers. There can be many answers to each question, all arguable.

So let’s look at smartphones. I suggest they—

  • Enhance conversation
  • Obsolesce mass media (print, radio, TV, cinema, whatever)
  • Retrieve personal agency (the ability to act with effect in the world)
  • Reverse into isolation (also into lost privacy through exposure to surveillance and exploitation)

don’t think we’re all the way into any of those yet, even as every damn one of us in a subway rewires our brains in real time using rectangles that extend our presence, involvement and effects in the world. Ironies abound, invisible, unnoticed. We all smell something, but perhaps it’s best that don’t know it’s countless frogs boiling, all at once.

Item: every subway station in New York and Boston now has cellular service, and many (at least in New York) have public Wi-Fi as well. But New York is still behind London, Paris and Boston in full deployment, because there is mobile phone and data service in the tunnels under those cities and not just in the stations.

So here’s another question: what will put smartphones in that lower right box?

I don’t have answers; I’m just sure there will be some—and that we’ll have passed Peak Phone when they come.

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highmountainI’ve long thought that the most consequential thing I’ve ever done was write a newspaper editorial that helped stop development atop the highest wooded hilltop overlooking the New York metro. The hill is called High Mountain, and it is now home to the High Mountain Park Preserve in Wayne, New Jersey. That’s it above, highlighted by a rectangle on a shot I took from a passenger plane on approach to LaGuardia in 2008.

The year was 1970, and I was a 23-year-old reporter for a suburban daily called Wayne Today (which may still exist). One day, while at the police station picking up copies of the previous day’s reports, I found a detailed plan to develop the top of High Mountain, and decided to pay the place a visit. So I took a fun hike through thick woods and a din of screaming cicadas (Brood X, I gather—the same one that inspired Bob Dylan’s “Day of the Locust”) to a rocky clearing at the crest, and immediately decided the mountain was a much better place for a park than for the office building specified in the plan.

As it happened there was also a need for an editorial soon after that, and Jerry Fuchs, who usually wrote our editorials, wasn’t available. So I came off the bench and wrote this:


That was a draft proof of the piece.* I ran across it today while cleaning old papers from a file cabinet in my garage. I doubt anybody has the final printed piece, and I’m amazed that the proof exists.

I left for another paper after that, and didn’t keep up with Wayne news, beyond hearing that my editorial derailed the development plan. No doubt activists of various kinds were behind the eventual preservation of the mountain. But it’s nice to know there is some small proof I had something to do with that.

*Additional history: Wayne Today published in those days using old-fashioned letterpress techniques. Type was set in lead by skilled operators on Linotype machines. Each line was a “slug,” and every written piece was a pile of slugs arranged in a frame, inked with a roller and then proofed by another roller that printed on blank paper. That’s what we marked up (as you see above) for the Linotype operators, who would create replacement slugs, give them to the page composers in layout, who could read upside down and backwards as they arranged everything in what was called a forme. The layout guys (they were all guys) then embossed each page into a damp papier-mâché sheet, which would serve as a mold for a half-cylinder of hot lead. Half-cylinders wrapped around giant rollers inked each rotation by other rollers did the printing. Other machines after that cut, stacked and folded the pages that ended up as newspapers at the end of the line. So the whole process went like this: reporter->Linotype operator->editor->Linotype operator->page composer->stereotype operator->printer. Ancestors of robotics eventually replaced all of it not long after I left (and the press burned down). Now in the U.S. exemplars of big-J journalism (New York Times, Washington Post) are tarred by the President as “fake news,” and millions believe him. My, how times change.

More High Mountain links:


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This event is now in the past and can be seen in its entirety here.

Stop now and go to, where @TristanHarris, the guy on the left above, has produced and gathered much wisdom about a subject most of us think little about and all of us cannot value more: our time.

Both of us will be co-investing some time tomorrow afternoon at the @BerkmanCenter, talking about Tristan’s work and visiting the question he raises above with guidance from S.J. Klein.

(Shortlink for the event: And a caution: it’s a small room.)

So, to help us get started, here’s a quick story, and a context in the dimension of time…

Many years ago a reporter told me a certain corporate marketing chief “abuses the principle of instrumentality.”

Totally knocked me out. I mean, nobody in marketing talked much about “influencers” then. Instead it was “contacts.” This reporter was one of those. And he was exposing something icky about the way influence works in journalism.

At different times in my life I have both spun as a marketer and been spun as a reporter. So hearing that word — instrumentality — put the influence business in perspective and knocked it down a notch on the moral scale. I had to admit there was a principle at work: you had to be a tool if you were using somebody as as one.

Look back through The Secret Diary of Steve Jobs, and you’ll see what I mean. Nobody was better than Ole’ Steve at using journalists. (Example: Walt Mossberg.) And nobody was better at exposing the difference between sausage and shit than Dan Lyons, who wrote that blog as Fake Steve. (Right: you didn’t want to see either being made. Beyond that the metaphor fails.)

Anyway, visiting the influence thing is a good idea right now because of this:


And this:


I call it a bubble and blame data. But that’s just to get the conversation started.

See (some of) you there.

(For a more positive spin, see this this bonus link and look for “We are all authors of each other.”)



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Yesterday morning, while I was making curtados in the kitchen, I was also trying to listen to the radio. The station was WNYC, New York’s main public radio station. The program at the time was This American Life. Since the espresso machine is noisy when extracting coffee or steaming milk, I kept looking for the pause button on the radio—out of habit. That’s because pausing is a feature present on the radio and podcasting apps on my phone and other mobile devices scattered around the house, all of which I tend to use for radio listening more than I use an actual radio.

So I decided to open TuneIn on my phone. TuneIn has been around for almost as long as we’ve had iPhones and Androids. It started as a way to play radio stations from all over the world, but has since broadened into “100,000+ live radio stations, plus on-demand content like podcasts & shows.” These are listed on its home screen in what I gather is something between a reverse chronological order list of stations I’ve listened to in the past, and the app’s best (yet wrong) guess of what I might want, or what that they want to promote… or I dunno. It’s hard to tell.

In other words, the app is now something of a pain, because if you want to listen to a radio station that’s not on its home page list, your easiest choice is to look it up, which takes time. Even if you “favorite” it, the best-guesswork (or whatever it is) system on the Home page buries what you want down the list somewhere among on-demand shows and podcasts (I’m guessing that’s what it is), none of which I have listened to once through the app.

Anyway, I found WNYC after awhile, and continued listening on the phone’s little speaker, hitting pause with my wet fingers while going through cutado-making routines.

While I was doing that, and thinking about how TuneIn is still the best of its breed (of tunes-every-station apps), and how all apps are works-in-progress, changing countless times over their life spans—and nearly all seem to be trying to do too much—this metaphor came to mind:

Mobile devices are just hors d’oeuvre trays, and apps are just hors d’oeuvres. Appetizers, not dinner. And nobody knows how to make dinner yet. Or even a dining room table.

So the kitchen just keeps serving up variations on the same old things. With radio it’s a mix of live stations, shows on their own, “on demand” shows or segments, podcasts and appeals to subscribe to a premium service. Weather, transit, fitness, news, photography, social… most of them evolve along similar broadening paths, trying along the way to lock you into their system.

The competition is good to have, and lots of good things happen on the platforms (or we wouldn’t use them so much), but the whole mess is also getting stale. Walled-garden platforms and apps from garden-run stores are now the box nobody seems to be thinking outside of.

We need something else for dinner. We also need a table to set it on, and utensils to eat it with. And none of those, I sense, are more than barely implicit in the hors d’oeuvres we’re chowing down now, or the trays they come on.

Bonus link.

4-1-06 detroit & ccs 005 web

Once, in the early ’80s, on a trip from Durham to some beach in North Carolina, we stopped to use the toilets at a roadhouse in the middle of nowhere. In the stall where I sat was a long conversation, in writing, between two squatters debating some major issue of the time. Think of the best back-and-forth you’ve ever read in a comment thread and you’ll get a rough picture of what this was like.

So I sat there, becoming engrossed and amazed at the high quality of the dialog — and the unlikelihood of it happening where it was.

Until I got to the bottom. There, ending the conversation, were the penultimate and ultimate summaries, posed as a question and answer:

Q: Why do people feel compelled to settle their differences on bathroom walls?

A. Because you suck my dick.

That story became legendary in our family and social network, to such a degree that my then-teenage daughter and her girlfriends developed a convention of saying “Because you suck my dick” whenever an argument went on too long and wasn’t going anywhere. This was roughly the same as dropping a cow: a way to end a conversation with an absurdity.

The whole thing came back to me when I read Pro-Trump Chalk Messages Cause Conflicts on College Campuses in the NYTimes today. The story it suggests is that this kind of thing regresses toward a mean that is simply mean. Or stupid. For example,

Wesleyan University issued a moratorium in 2003, after members of the faculty complained that they were being written about in sexually explicit chalk messages.

So I’m thinking we need a name for this, or at least an initialism. So I suggest BYSMD.

You’re welcome.




Oil from the Coal Oil Seep Field drifts across Platform Holly, off the shore of UC Santa Barbara.

Oil from the Coal Oil Seep Field drifts across Platform Holly, off the shore of UC Santa Barbara.

Oil in the water is one of the strange graces of life on Califonia’s South Coast.

What we see here is a long slick of oil in the Pacific, drifting across Platform Holly, which taps into the Elwood Oil Field, which is of a piece with the Coal Oil Point Seep Field, all a stone’s throw off Coal Oil Point, better known as UC Santa Barbara.

Wikipedia (at the momentsays this:

The Coal Oil Point seep field offshore from Santa Barbara, California isa petroleum seep area of about three square kilometres, adjacent to the Ellwood Oil Field, and releases about 40 tons of methane per day and about 19 tons of reactive organic gas (ethane, propane, butane and higher hydrocarbons), about twice the hydrocarbon air pollution released by all the cars and trucks in Santa Barbara County in 1990.[1]The liquid petroleum produces a slick that is many kilometres long and when degraded by evaporationand weathering, produces tar balls which wash up on the beaches for miles around.[2]

This seep also releases on the order of 100 to 150 barrels (16 to 24 m3) of liquid petroleum per day.[3] The field produces about 9 cubic meters of natural gas per barrel of petroleum.[2]

Leakage from the natural seeps near Platform Holly, the production platform for the South Ellwood Offshore oilfield, has decreased substantially, probably from the decrease in reservoir pressure due to the oil and gas produced at the platform.[2]

On the day I shot this (February 10), from a plane departing from Santa Barbara for Los Angeles, the quantity of oil in the water looked unusually high to me. But I suppose it varies from day to day.

Interesting fact:

  • Chumash canoes were made planks carved from redwood or pine logs washed ashore after storms, and sealed with asphalt tar from the seeps. There are no redwoods on the South Coast, by the way. The nearest are far up the coast at Big Sur, a couple hundred miles to the northwest. (It is likely that most of the redwood floating into the South Coast came from much farther north, where the Mendicino and Humboldt coastlines are heavily forested with redwood.)
  • National Geographic says that using the tar had the effect of shrinking the size of Chumash heads over many generations.
  • There are also few rocks hard enough to craft into a knife or an ax anywhere near Santa Barbara, or even in the Santa Ynez mountains behind it. All the local rocks are of relatively soft sedimentary kinds. Stones used for tools were mostly obtained by trade with tribes from other regions.

Here’s the whole album of oil seep shots.

nc_cash_banner2015_740bI’d like to find a way to say “You may be owed money!” that doesn’t sound like spam. But I that’s the message, and it’s true, so here you go.

A few days ago a cousin-in-law told the extended family’s mail list about the North Carolina State Treasurer’s Claim Your Cash! program for recovering unclaimed property people don’t know about. That’s its graphic, above.

Since I lived for two decades in North Carolina, I filled out the very simple form on the site and found that I wasn’t owed any money, but that other relatives with the same surname were.

So then my wife found California’s Unclaimed Property Search page, run by the state Controller’s office:


Since I’ve been a California citizen since 1985, she thought we might strike some gold by filling out the form there. And we did: six unclaimed property results. Four of them were easily handled by filling out online forms. After a few minutes of that, checks from the state totaling about $840 were on their way to my mailbox. Of the remaining two, one was for $0, and the other (for about $50) required the added labor of printing out and mailing in a form.

Since I also grew up in New Jersey and lived there for awhile after graduating from college, I checked with that state’s treasurer’s office as well. They sent me to, which covers all states. It found nothing in New Jersey and “less than $100” in Massachusetts, where I also lived for a few years. That one has a smaller form. Like all the others it warns you to be absolutely sure about how you filled it out, because you can’t go back. In my case it told me my social security number was wrong, and then jumped me to a page that said “Your information has been sent to the state” before I could go back and re-try. (It either wants or doesn’t want dashes in the social security number. Dunno which.) So I don’t know what will happen there.

Still, if you’ve been an adult long enough to pay a lot of bills (especially to doctors and hospitals), or to hold an insurance policy, you may be owed money that has come into the possession of a state.

So check it out and see how you do.

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In my last post I said all printers suck — at least in my experience. YMMV, as they say.

The most recent suckage at our place was produced by a Brother laser printer and an Epson ink-jet that co-died while I was elsewhere (coincidentally dealing with an Epson printer that refused to print anything from my wife’s laptop, which is the same model as mine, running the same OS, with the same printer drivers).

So I bought the Samsung M2830DW Xpress Monochrome Laser Printer on the Staples website. The price is currently $59.99, which could hardly be better, since Consumer Reports top-rates it over Canons, Brothers and HPs, all of which cost more.

It works well. I gave it five stars on the Staples and Consumer Reports sites.


In case you buy this thing, I also want to share the caveats I put in my reviews at the two sites:

  1. It comes with no manual and cryptic pictorial multi-lingual instructions. You’ll need patience. Getting the toner out and removing various strips is the hardest job. But it can be done. (Here’s a link to the manual.)
  2. Wireless operation requires a software install by an enclosed CD, followed by initial wireless set-up by a computer over an enclosed USB cable. This is a one-time thing. That’s so the unit can know, for example, the wi-fi access point security code. (Though it might be more than one-time if you change access points or codes, so don’t lose that CD.) This is a pain if your computer doesn’t have a CD/DVD drive. Neither my MacBook Air nor my wife’s can play CDs or DVDs. (In fact most small new laptops don’t have that feature, since CDs and DVDs are terribly retro now.) So we had to fire up an old laptop and install though that. (Really, Samsung should have the same installer downloadable from the Web. Far as I can tell, they don’t, but I may not have dug deep enough on their website.)
  3. There is no clue to how much toner comes standard with the unit. The Brother this one replaces printed about a dozen sheets then wanted a replacement. The Staples where we picked this up did not stock the toner. In any case, you’ll need spare toner anyway, so get some, if you can, when you buy the thing.
  4. The cost of this unit on the Staples site was $79.99, discounted from $159.99. This is far below Consumer Reports’ reported prices of $127 – $199 (both, oddly, at Walmart). So I was happy with that until I got an email from Staples asking me to rate the unit. The Email sent me to me to the page where I am writing this — and the price now is $59.99. Great price, but I feel a bit cheated.
  5. At the store where I picked up the printer, I was pitched a three-year protection plan for $4.99, but when the guy behind the counter tried to make that work with “the system,” it came up as $30, so I declined. But now I notice this on the page for the printer: “3-yr Printer Protection Plan ($30-59.99) $4.99.”

I also notice that it’s also $59.99 at Amazon, for what it’s worth. Guess they’re trying to blow it off the shelves.

So here’s hoping it doesn’t start sucking soon.

[Later…] I contacted Staples through the chat agent on the printer’s page, and the agent quickly adjusted the price I paid to $59.99. So that was nice. Unfortunately, the agent couldn’t retroactively give me the $4.99 protection plan.


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