It’s Your Call: Is a Picture Worth $1,000?

By Josh Sens, San Francisco Chronicle – 03/10/2000 – 12:00am


In an age when the amount of money one earns is inversely proportional to the value of the work one actually does, it’s rare to find a multimillionaire who has something to show for himself.

So it came as a surprise last week when Dutch gazillionaire Eckart Wintzen breezed into town bearing proof that his time is being put to some use. The eccentric investor, who divides his days between a Berkeley Hills home and a medieval castle in the Netherlands, is best known in these parts as the founder of Ex’pression Center for New Media in Emeryville. Lately, however, he’s been busy trumpeting something else: a Jetsons-style “image telephone”.

Wintzen and a team of high-tech wizards have churned out a handful of the futuristic phones, which come equipped with mini-cameras and allow people to converse, Wintzen says, “face to face, eye to eye”. The obvious value of this technology is that it will allow frat boys to pull off hilariously graphic prank phone calls.

But Wintzen insists there’s more to it than that. The phones, he says, will cut down on commuting, and thus benefit the environment. What’s more, he adds, they’ll lend “a more human element” to phone conversations. Of course, video phones have been tried before, and failed. Wintzen says he knows why: The images were too fuzzy and the phones were too pricey. His crystal-clear image phone, he says, will be “the Volkswagen of the future”. “It will cost around $5,000 to start”, he says. “But eventually it will go down to around $1,000, so everyone can afford them”. At that price, you can put one in every room of your medieval castle.

DINING GUIDE: For better or worse, seems everyone can afford a cell phone these days. Enough people, anyway, to create an etiquette crisis, according to Sue Fox, who keeps track of such things. Fox, who gives workshops in Berkeley and Oakland on proper manners, is the author of the recently published “Etiquette for Dummies” (IDG, $19.95) and founder of Etiquette Survival in Los Gatos.

A pressing problem she sees in today’s dot.com culture stems from young Internet ninnies who know the difference between a market order and a limit order but do not know it is improper to sit in a restaurant barking “buy low, sell high” into a cell phone. “It’s a subject that comes up all the time in my workshops”, she says. “My fear is that cell phones are so prevalent in the culture, it may already be too late”.

LAST CALL: But not too late at Chez Panisse, which about six months ago had the request, “Please refrain from cell phone use” printed on its menu. At Garibaldi’s in Oakland, meantime, higher-ups have stopped short of a written cell phone policy, opting instead, says co-owner Ed Hancock, for a “stare-and-frown” policy. Maggie Klein, co-owner of Oliveto in Oakland, says the restaurant is “this close” to laying down the law against cell phones. “It’s just a shame that we’ve finally done away with the cigarette problem”, she says, “and now we’ve got this”.

DISPOSABLE ART: At Mama’s Royal Cafe in Oakland, it’s considered poor etiquette to leave the table without doodling on a napkin. Over the years, diners left so many artistic scribblings lying around that owner George Marino decided to do something about it . he started a napkin art contest. It’s amazing what you can do with a napkin, Marino says, other than wipe up wayward ketchup. “One customer made me a jacket entirely out of napkins”, Marino says. “It’s beautiful, just not in the rain”. Entries for this year’s contest, which awards $300 for first prize, are due by the end of the month.

DISCOUNT SHOPPING: Sara Kopels of Oakland thought she’d stumbled upon a gold mine last week when the ATM at her local Wells Fargo spat out two $20 bills from 1934. She figured they were worth something. And she was right. “Twenty dollars”, says Ralph T. Foster of Foster’s Coin and Stamp in Berkeley. A better way to cash in, Foster says, is with coins — like the new Sacagawea dollar, which is turning into this year’s Beanie Baby. They’re in short supply at banks. But Wal-Mart is sitting on a huge stash of them. So many, in fact, that the Wal-Mart in San Leandro will hand out up to 10 per customer in exchange for $10. Foster says a new scam for coin dealers is to collect the coins at Wal-Mart, then resell them for $5 a pop.

WASTE NOT, WANT NOT: Mauricio Vieira of Albany was more concerned with a different kind of collecting — bulky waste collecting. Someone had told him that neighborhoods in the hills got bulky waste pick-ups twice a year, while homes in the flatland areas only received the service once a year. He wanted to know if that was true, so he called on yours truly to look into it. Nothing a simple phone call the Alameda County Waste Management Authority wouldn’t take care of, right?

Attendant: Hello, Waste Management Authority.
Yours truly: Hi, I’d like to know the schedule for bulky waste pick-ups.
Attendant: Why should I tell you?
Yours truly: Why shouldn’t you?
Attendant: I don’t know who you are, and people do weird things with garbage. I’ll transfer you…
Administration: Karen, administration… hmm… dispatch should know. I’ll transfer you…
Dispatch: Dispatch, Ms. Ray… hmm… that’s something customer service would handle. I’ll transfer you…
Customer service: Hmmm… let me get this to someone who handles this…
Attendant: Bulky waste pick-up schedules? Why should I tell you?
Let’s see them do that to someone on an image phone.

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