Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Red Tape for a Red Car

This past weekend, we received the replacement for our 2004 Saturn VUE.

At eight+ years of age, the Saturn was starting to make some alarming noises and had some alarming handling characteristics (a really horrible shudder at about 72MPH and tendencies to buck when attempting to hold speed, uphill, in the 25-30MHP range). So, back in September, we'd decided "this car's probably going to be very expensive to try to keep for much longer: time to look for a replacement".

We didn't need a vehicle the size of the VUE. The VUE had been bought when we were trying to have kids. Now, with no kids or ability to have kids, we only needed a vehicle suitable for holiday trips with two 50lb bulldogs. So, while a Fiat 500 would be well too small (though, having test-driven one, they are quite nice), we still wanted something smaller and more fuel-efficient than the VUE.

"More fuel-efficient" wasn't a major challenge. Even when brand new, the VUE got 18 city/25 highway. In the past year, it had been averaging around 17MPG with mixed-use (though, primarily city) driving.

  • While a car with the mileage of a Prius would have been nice, they're utterly joyless cars - purely utilitarian.
  • While a Tesla S would have been a rather nice choice, the $85K for the range and other options we wanted made that choice a non-starter.
  • The concept of the Chevy Volt was nice, but, for a $40K+ vehicle, it felt really cheaply made.
  • Most of the other hybrids and EVs suffered similar problems to the Prius and the Volt.

Having been well-impressed by the A3 TDI sport-wagon I'd driven for over a month while working in Germany, we sought out one of them. Unfortunately, Audi had decided to discontinue making it after October of this year. All that was available were the ones already stateside. All of the A3's within an eight-hour radius of the DC metro region were: A) automatic transmissions (*ick*); and, B) some boring shade of silver/grey/white/black/beige (double *ick*). We really wanted a stick-shift and we wanted something that wasn't one of the boring colors that seems to have taken over northern VA in recent years. We also really wanted the sport wagon, not its sedan replacement. So, the Audi fell off our list.

Our next contender was something from Mini. They have decent fuel economy. Even more, for that fuel economy, we didn't have to compromise on performance or comfort. They were a bit lower on fuel economy than we wanted (26/32 for the Cooper S variants) and a bit more expensive than we'd been hoping for. But... At any rate, after taking several different Mini variants out (tried the classic Cooper, the Clubman and the Countryman, each in two-wheel and all-wheel drive variants and turbo and normally-aspirated variants), we decided we wanted a manual Countryman. For the options we wanted, they didn't have anything on the lot. Much like all the other Northern VA dealerships, most of what they had were automatics and in colors we weren't interested in. So, we opted to order one.

Then the waiting began. For three weeks, the order status (on the Mini Owner's Lounge) stayed stubbornly on "order submitted; awaiting scheduling". Then, one day, it changed to "slated for production" ...but stubbornly stayed in that status for a further 2+ weeks.

It seemed odd that it would be scheduled but not produced for so long. So, I called our salesman to see if he had a more granular view of its status. He checked his system and saw that it had actually left port!

On the one hand, it was great knowing we were on the home stretch. On the other hand, it just ratcheted up the pain of anticipation. Every day, I logged into the Owners Lounge to see if its status had changed. The magical "at the distribution center" status update finally happened. So, I called my salesman to see how long it would be till it was on the lot.

I know when I'd ordered my last car, it came into the port of Baltimore and was at the dealership three days later. I was hoping for the same, especially given that such a timetable would have meant we could have had it in time to take our Thanksgiving roadtrip in the new car. Alas, it got hung up at the processing center. We were due to leave for my mom's house on November 20th. It wasn't due into the dealership until the evening of the 21st. DRAT!

We slumped off to PA sans new car. Was an enjoyable, relaxing trip. Good company and good food. Donna and my mom did some Black Friday shopping, but Donna was eager to hurry back to DC to try to pick the car up as early as possible. I told her, "even if we leave now, it will be dark by the time we get there" (early sunset of a daylight savings time day!) and I don't pick up new vehicles in anything but full daylight. Too many things can hide in low-light conditions.

We got up Saturday and did our normal morning farmer's market run. Upon hurrying home, Donna pestered me to ping our salesman on when we could come pick it up. I sent him a text message and we sorted it out that we'd meet around 12:30.

We headed over to the lot at the appointed time. I'm glad that I'd insisted on a full-daylight pickup. When we got there, I noticed that the racing stripes had some bubbling and peeling (and some other shipping blemishes). Turns out that all those striped Minis you see out there have those stripes applied at the distribution center rather than the factory. They're hand-applied, not machine applied. I was disappointed at both the application errors and the fact that they were a post-shipping, manual application rather than part of the paint-job. Oh well.

So, we did all the paperwork on the car, but left it at the dealership for them to fix. They dropped it off Monday:

Donna took the picture with her phone. Framing's a bit squished, probably due to her excitement. Any way, it's a nice little car. Unfortunately, it's still not free and clear...

When we'd done the paperwork, Saturday, we couldn't find the title-release for the car. No major problem, normally: just go to the DMV and get a copy from them. Today, Donna headed down to the DMV to do just that. Unfortunately, the DMV didn't have a record of ever having received the title-release from the lien-holder. Joy.

Went online - pulled the VIN number from our insurance company's web site and looked up the phone number for the bank we'd financed the VUE through. Wouldn't you know it: the bank we'd financed through had changed ownership. When I called the new bank, their automated system couldn't find our record by either VIN or SSN. So, I did the "find the human" dance with the new bank's call-tree.

Eventually, I got hold of a nice woman. She informed me the reason that I couldn't use the automated system to get my account info was, having paid the car off nearly four years previously, it was no longer in their online system. They'd have to pull the record from their archives. She'd found the vehicle information and was requesting the restore. They'd mail it out and it should be at our house in 3-5 business days. I thanked her for her assistance and hung up.

Given that the dealership was expecting to have the turnover paperwork, this week, I called them up to let them know "ran into an issue - won't be able to do the DMV paperwork for another 3-5 business days". They seemed to be cool with it. Probably isn't the first time they've had this happen. But still can't get this all sorted out till at least next week.

On the other hand, the loan paperwork for this car won't even have gotten into my new bank's hands for nearly two weeks. I'd tried to login to their electronic loan system, last night, but they had no record of me. Turns out, they typically don't have the stuff available in their loan system for up to two weeks from the purchase date. 

"Waiting for procedures" seems to be not only the story of my work life, it's the story of my personal life, as well. Fmeh.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Soulless in Suburbia

So, I live in Northern Virginia (also known as NoVA). These are the Virginia suburbs of the Washington, DC metro region. All in all, it's a fairly well to do area. Sadly, it's a fairly soulless area. If you come from a city like New York, Philadelphia, Boston or Baltimore, you're used to areas that have "neighborhoods" - distinct communities that have common cultural bonds.

I've lived in NoVA for just shy of 20 years, now. In that time, the only things I've noticed to dominate the area are homeowners associations. NoVA is the shining example of what's wrong with HOAs and the types of people that love them. HOAs are part of an overall pattern of enforced blandness and suburban ennui. Worse, in areas like NoVA, the HOA mindset seems to permeate all aspects of life here.

I guess it almost naturally follows that if your stuck living in neighborhoods of cookie-cutter neighborhoods of hundreds of HOA-approved beige single family homes, the unrelenting beigeness will come to fill the empty space left by your shriveled soul. So, I guess it only follows that, if you live in a house that looks almost identical to your neighbors', you'll want to dress like them, drive the same vehicles as them, eat like them, etc. In NoVA, you can be an interchangeable clone, just like all your HOA-dominated peers.

You start your day by slipping into your khakis and stumbling down the stairs to take in breakfast. You take your McKids to their school because, god forbid they walk the five blocks to get there (and the local school district won't bus them if they live closer than 1mi. to the school). I mean, it's too dangerous for little Brayden to walk a few blocks to school. And if there's bad weather? Heavens: no one has invented boots or umbrellas yet - they'd catch pneumonia if you didn't drive them to school!

So, out you go in your silver or grey (or other automotive beige-equivalent) minivan or SUV. Kids bundled in back, watching the mandatorily-installed mini-LCDs. It'd suck to have to actually talk to your kids or have your kids pry their eyes away from a TV set for more than the length of time it takes to transit from the house to the car. Thank god for iPads, though, because even that gap can be filled!

Kids safely deposited at school, you take your drab little soulless car and hop on the beltway.You make the two hour, thirty mile trip to work. You find a space to park your car - not too close to the other cars, lest someone ding your grey pride and joy, though! You lurch into your non-descript office building and trudge your way into cubicle-land. You talk about the latest thing you've TiVO'ed while taking half a bagel or donut from the tray in the break room. You spend your day staring at a computer monitor while what's left of your humanity dies a little more.

The day crawls by in a blur of pointless meetings and pointless smalltalk. You stumble out into the parking lot trying to remember, "where did I park my car" because, god knows you can't tell your little grey or silver suburbia-mobile from another. Thank god you got that "clever" personalized license plate, those "funny" bumper stickers and the family window stickers to help you tell your little grey or silver suburbia-mobile from the others. Ah! There it is - the one that chirps when you press on your keyless entry system; the one saying "it's me you're looking for!" You toss your laptop case in the car and ready yourself for the slog home.

Two hours later, you've navigated the thirty miles back to your drab, beige house. The spouse is home, but the kids are still off at the mall. You can't remember which one, because there's so many nearby and the all look the same and have all the same stores in them. Time to send out the "come home for dinner" text message.

Eventually, the kids come home (yes, somehow, deepest, darkest suburbia is safe enough for them to be out at the mall, just not enough to walk to school). No one feels like cooking, so you pack the kids into the family truckster and head off to the nearest place to get chain food. You ignore each other over dinner, staring into your respective cellphones or notepad computers - catching up on the latest that FaceBook has to offer. Dinner is acceptable but utterly forgettable - it's just like the thousands you've had before at this or some other chain-food outlet.

You trundle the kids back to the family truckster and drive home so the kids can do their homework and so you can lose yourself in all the things you've TiVO'ed this week.

It goes on like this for the rest of your life. It all goes blurring by, featureless. One day, you actually die, but you don't really notice.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

New Car Blues

My wife's car is getting long in the tooth - especially for a GM, apparently. It's making noises as though it's going to require some non-trivial maintenance (at eight and a half years of age it's got less than 80,000 miles on it - so those noises may just be paranoia on my part). So, we were looking at replacing it.

We've decided on the vehicle we want and the set of features we want. Unfortunately, the dealer doesn't have the car with anything really approaching the combination of features that we want. That means we have to order it from the factory. Absolute best case for delivery is approximately four weeks. Expected worst-case scenario is approximately twelve weeks.

<SideRant>
Why the fuck is it so hard to get an on-lot car: A) with manual transmission; and/or B) that isn't only available in some shade of silver or grey)
</SideRant>

My bank is currently offering about $1800 in discounts off the price of the car we want ...if we use their financing. Mostly, that discount makes up for the 1% higher interest rate for their offer versus dealer-financing). That offer, however, is only good through 11/14/12.

I'm good if the car takes less than 8wks to arrive. If the car takes more than that, I'm boned with respect to my bank's package (unless they extend the current package's end-date or initiate a new, similar program afterwards).

Looking at BankRate.Com, the direct-loan offers I'm seeing from the banks they aggregate data for start at about 0.5% higher than my bank's current promotion. But that costs me both the $1800 discount and a higher interest rate.

Only bright side is that the dealer offered to lock me at their current rate. Would cost me the $1800 discount. However, I think that would be about a wash. Oh well, I'll take my wife's truck in, tomorrow, and see what they can quote me for a trade-in.

Man. Shoulda bought before the economy started to recover and banks and car companies were both starving for business. :p

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

WTF, BMW?

I'd been hoping to get a small, fun, fuel-efficient car to stand in as a daily driver for my BMW Convertible. Unfortunately, things seem to be conspiring to put the kaibosh on that.

My wife's Saturn has been showing its age, lately. Things coming loose (e.g., keep having to re-seat and re-tighten the hood's latch-bolt). The A/C has been a joke against this summer's heat (so, probably a leak in the coolant system) - and requires driving in a lower gear to keep the car a reasonable temperature. The car shudders under low-throttle conditions (e.g., when in going through an uphill 25MPH zone and trying to maintain a constant speed). In all, it means I've had to turn to thoughts of finding a suitable replacement for it.

We'd bought the Saturn when we were still hopeful of having children. At the time, we were hoping to need a vehicle the size of a VUE. Plus, it was one of the few SUVs in its class that had comfort features like heated front seats (this was 2004).

Since the prospect of children are no longer an issue, I'd really wanted to replace it with a smaller vehicle. I was thinking something more in sport wagon form-factor. Basically, a smaller, more fuel-sipping car, but still larger than my convertible. Since we've still got pets to haul and pack heavy when going on road trips (e.g., the holidays), this seemed like a good compromise.

One of the vehicles I'd been considering was the X1. Tonight, traffic was such that I had to take bailout routes (actually, bailouts from the bailouts). The GPS routed me past BMW of Alexandria. I figured, "I'm in the neighborhood...". I'd figured that, since the X1 was positioned similarly to the Audi A3 sport wagon, that it'd have similar efficiency specs. Not so much, though. Long story short, the X1 is pretty much off the table. While it's the right size, I'm just not gonna pony up $50K for a 3500lb+ (base weight) sport wagon that only gets 17/27.

My goal for any replacement for the SUV is a vehicle whose lowest MPG is 30MPG. In other words, I'm looking at hybrids, diesels and other fuel efficient gas vehicles to replace the Saturn. Given that I have the A3 and (had the) X1 in the list of considerations, I'm not looking for an econo-box, per se, I'm just looking for a nice ride that doesn't require weekly stops at the gas station.

To be honest, I don't understand BMW's direction, at this point. I have a 2002 e46 convertible. I bought it new (custom ordered, actually, when BMW still offered their "BMW Individual" program on the 3-series). I'd always considered it to be a bit heavy for it's class, but dealt with it. It also got respectable mileage (rated at 18/26 but I usually get closer to 30 on the highway). However, when I look at my e46's current siblings/cousins, I'm just lost. This years' 3-series vehicles are bigger than my model year's 5-series vehicles were. Granted, for their size, they get decent mileage, but that's about all I can say for them. I look at competing models from Audi and it's even more apalling (the most feature-fitted A3 still has a efficiency rating of 30/42).

I like small, sporty, efficient cars. BMW used to offer cars that were relatively efficient for being sporty. Now, their cars are all too freaking big, their rides have been softened and their efficiency is abyssmal. It's like, "WTF". It's no wonder Audi has been eating BMW's lunch, lately.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Open Letter To Google:

I get that there are and should be standards for public posts on sites like Plus. I don't have a problem with that, beyond the ones of how uneven and seemingly arbitrary the enforcement of standars is. That said, Google does provide mechanisms for private- or limited-sharing. The presumption of such a system is that, so long as everyone in those closed-circles/groups are in agreement on the "rules" of what's appropriate to share, Google really shouldn't insert themselves as the no-no police (obvious exceptions for material that is, in fact, illegal in the jurisdictions that the material is shared to).

That Google appears to want to insert themselves into semi-private communications and make determinations as to what should be allowed in those private communications is, at best, "troubling". It leaves a tremendously bad taste in ones mouth. For all its failings, FaceBook (and other social media that offer private communications options) doesn't seem to have inappropriate editorial actions as one of their problems. Frankly, logging in this morning and seeing delete actions against non-public posts where the people shared with/to have all agreed on content rules, was both a touch unsettling and rage-inducing.

I know that Google's reported active Plus-use numbers are going up. So, perhaps they feel secure in their place with Google Plus. Perhaps that feeling of security it making them feel like they have a freer hand. I dunno, but it's definitely making me reconsider my place on Plus.

So, if I drop off of Plus, it's because I have decided that Plus is no longer a suitable home for me. There's too many other options, out there, where I don't have to worry about what I say or to whom I say it.

Who knows: maybe it's less Google in this instance than it is other posters on Plus acting dickishly or simply carelessly (resharing private or even semi-private things publicly is "careless" at best). I really don't want to consider that one as betrayal of trust makes things decidedly not worth sticking around for.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

To Be Avoided: HFS Benefits

These guys?

Fucking worthless.

Prior to my employer's acquisition, they used these clown-shoes for administration of our FSA plans. As part of our plans, we were issued FSA credit cards that we could charge eligible expenses with so that we wouldn't have to dick around with all the reimbursement paperwork that I've had to file with some older plans (early 2000s). However, each time I used the FSA cards that these assholes administered, I'd get an email a month or so later saying "you have to provide detailed receipts in order for us to process this charge."

Really? You sent me this fucking piece of plastic to streamline the process, yet, I still have to submit supplemental paperwork in order for you assholes to approve the charge? What was the fucking point of those cards, then? Did you just want to have an excuse to waste plastic and print up a pretty card with your company logo on it?

Seriously: I didn't have these issues with the FSA cards at my last job.

Then again, why the fuck is a defense contractor operating a health benefits administration company? Talk about "operating outside your core competency".

Ass-hats.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Observation From A Party of Friends

It's a lot easier to not notice that you're getting older if you don't hang out with the same group of people (periodically) over time. The problem with infrequent get-togethers, is that it's a stark reminder that your friends are all getting old (and, by extension, that you're getting old).

Used to only notice this when I would go home to visit my parents. Each time I did so, they looked older - particularly my father. It got to the point where the visible aging became hard to bear and made it such that, even though I really loved my parents, I couldn't bear the psychological toll of seeing how much older they looked each time I saw them. It meant that visits became more and more infrequent. Sadly, with reduced frequency of exposure, the progressive effects of aging would be all that much more apparent because the snapshots had longer intervals between them.

Who knows: maybe the key to not being bothered by it is to see people more frequently That way the changes are less stark and the resultant shocks less jarring.

Dunno, but people need to stop getting older - it makes me feel too old when I see.

Friday, July 20, 2012

TMI: It's Not Just a Nuclear Disaster in Pennsyltucky

In news of the TMI (seriously, just go ahead and skip this post, now...)

Yesterday, shortly before bed, I stumbled on one of those dubious "interesting facts" web sites that seem to litter teh Intarwebz. If you saw the sperm/exercise post, last night, that's where it came from. At any rate, one of the "interesting facts" listed on the site was something to the effect that "if you dream that you're peeing, you will actually end up peeing in your sleep". This is probably from the same school of wisdom that says "if you fall from a fatal height in your dream and hit the ground before you wake up, you'll die in your sleep".

Apparently, my brain took this as some kind of challenge. I was having some really freaking bizarre dreams (thank you, double-dose of melatonin!), last night. At one point, in one of those dreams, I ended up dreaming that I was taking a piss. This wasn't just some ordinary, run down the hall for a quick squirt kind of piss, either. No. It was an epic piss. It was the kind of long-lasting, bladder-voiding monster-piss that would have turned me into a desicated corpse had it not been a dream-piss (look, I already told you "TMI" and "skip this": you were warned).

I did not wake up before or during this epic void. Nope. I continued on with the rest of a night full of freaking bizarre dreams. I woke up in the morning and all was dry. So, either the bed has amazing absorbancy and odor-killing properties, or my brain won the challenge (#MythBusted).

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Musical Brain

Here I sit, at my laptop, looking at the clock, not yet 03:00 and I know that I'm probably up for the day? How do I know? I've a simple barometer of whether I'm done sleeping for my stretch. If I wake up, and I hear music, I know my brain has woken up and likely won't go back to sleep - at least, not easily and probably not for long.

Since I need to get up before 06:00, today, attempting to sleep till my alarm would likely result in less than two hours additional sleep. Probably not worth the effort. Probably not worth the anxiety of sitting there, watching my alarm clock click onwards towards my target waking-time, wondering "can I actually get back to sleep for a meaningful ammount of time."

The funny thing with my internal wakeup music is that, as much as I can tell by it's presence that "I'm up", I can also frequently tell how "up" I am. If the music is strong, loud and relatively complete, there's no point even trying to go back to sleep. If the music is just barely there, especially if whatever my inner-DJ's playing is at a low volume or is just a line or two of whatever music is coursing through my head, I know there's a chance that I might get back to sleep. I just have to wait it out and hope the music fades or comes to a stop.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Understand Who You're Marketing To

One of the things I like about being in the technology field? All the emails offering "free" tech reports, whitepapers and the like. Then, you click on the link to said "free" report, and you're greeted with a damned "please register" page.

I don't understand the motivation. You're marketing these papers towards technical folks. In other words, you're setting up login barriers to the people least likely to give you their real contact information. Sure, I'll register and give you an email address and a phone number, but precisely 10 minutes after I receive the "here's your login information" email, all the requested contact information will cease to exist. So, what was the point?

The funny part is when the toolbags that "offer" these documents are simply putting a registration banner in front of something that they downloaded from somewhere else. It seems they forget that: A) Google (et. al.) exist; and that, B) the document they're offering was originally available from a site that either had no registration requirement or one that was significantly less time-consuming to get through.

And, as a final note: taking what was previously published as an HTML document and providing it as a PDF doesn't make it worth me downloading it from your site and giving you my (fake) information. I've got a "print to PDF" tool installed (if you run Linux, OS•X or even a more recent Windows iteration, it's part of the OS) on my laptop. In other words, I get no benefit from downloading it specifically from you.

Lastly, if your registration process is too involved, such that it takes me less time to Google an alternate source than it does to get through your gateway, guess what I'm going to do. I'm big into instant gratification. Why the hell would I jump through hoops and waste time with your site?

Monday, July 2, 2012

Aggressive Billing Practices

I really have to wonder what the fuck is wrong with various merchants, doctors and other service providers. I mean, I get that there's a lot of deadbeats out there and that everyone wants to get paid on-time, but the billing practices of some providers has become insultingly-aggressive.

Last year, we'd gotten hit in a head-on collision that rendered our SUV undriveable. The local police called a wrecker for us. The wrecker came and picked up our vehicle and towed it to their lot. The next day, the insurance company came and towed it to the body shop it was going to be repaired at. Before the week was out, I had received a lien-notice in the mail from the wrecker. They'd sent it out within 24 hours of towing the vehicle without so much as even an attempt to bill me or the insurance companies for the initial tow (yet, they released the vehicle?).

At the time, this seemed unreasonable, but, I could at least sort of understand it from the standpoint that there was no previous business relationship between us and the towing company, so there was no good track record of timely payment. I could also understand it from the standpoint that a significant portion of their business is related to police-initiated impound-tows and impound-tows from illegal parking in private lots. Annoying, but at least sort of understandable that they might be aggressive in seeking liens.

In May, the company I worked for switched insurance carriers. My wife had had one of her regularly-scheduled appointments (she's got a chronic condition, so the appointments happen every six weeks) that month. Apparently, when the doctor's office submitted the bill for insurance reimbursement, they submitted to the wrong insurance company (and it was, naturally, declined). Last week, we received a notice from our prior carrier about a $3000 patient-responsibility and, a couple days later, a notice from the collection company her doctor's office had turned the bill over to. Now, this is a doctor my wife has been seeing since 2009. This is a doctor who has been paid, on time, every time, for just shy of three years now. So, we have a well-established payment track record. Yet, somehow, due to a billing mistake on their part, we get a collection notice - without ever having so much as received a call from their billing department or even a "we can't schedule you for your next appointment due to an outstanding balance issue" when my wife had called in a week or so previous to the receipt of the collection-notice.

Seriously: WTF? How fucking hard is it to reach out to customers - especially customers with a well-established track record of timely payment - before just kicking things over to collections?

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Better?

Found this image, today, while looking at my "all circles" feed on Plus:

I fin this image is interesting from a couple standpoints:

  1. For starters, the Nexus appears not to have a spoon or even anything spoon-like. Sometimes, all you want and all you need are a spoon. Everything else is just pointless distraction that doesn't help you accomplish whatever it is you're trying to do.
  2. At the same time, you'll notice that with the Apple device, there's little possibility of the hockey-helmeted set hurting themselves with anything pointy or sharp. I suppose the really determined could accidentally scoop out their own eyeball (or, more likely, get it stuck, rectally), but that's about the biggest "danger".

For the record, unlike a lot of the devotees of each maker, I don't really have a religious affiliation with either device. For me, what I want is a tool that works well for the tasks I need to use it for. If I need a spoon, it does me little good to use the device that doesn't have a spoon. If what I need is a knife, it does me little good to use a device that only offers me a spoon. It's just a question of the right tool for the job.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

My Time-Sense Is Shit

My last job, I was an IT consultant for a five year period of time. In that period, I averaged 150+ nights/year in Marriott hotels (earned a lot of hotel points, Hertz points, airline points, etc.) all over the US and Europe. My boss owned my schedule Monday to Friday and my wife owned my schedule on weekends. Between those two individuals and Google calendar, I never really had need to keep track of my time. My only worry was getting to the electronically-scheduled appointments on time. Absent my eCalendars and the readout on my cell phone, I really had no firm clue of what time or day it was (beyond knowing "it must be M-F since I'm on the road" or "it must be the weekend since I'm home").

I don't think my mind has ever recovered from this. Even now, rolling up on three years since leaving that job, if it ain't on my calendar or I don't have my phone, I don't really know when it is (whatever "it" is).

All of this is prelude/background to why I didn't specifically remember when I spent six weeks - a non-trivial chunk of time - in Memphis. I'd sorta always thought it was 2007. Turns out it was 2008. The only reason I know that it was 2008 was that Flo Rida's _Low_ was all over the goddamned radio in Memphis (and the particular Hertz outlet I was renting from didn't have XM in the cars they were renting me).

I should have remembered it was 2008 because it was shortly after spending six weeks eating lots of barbecue and fried-food in Memphis that I ended up hospitalized with pancreatitis (not related: that was medically-induced because of a toxic reaction to Topamax - a medicine I was on, at the time, for my epilepsy).

You'd think the pain that led to the hospitalization would have been an adequate time-marker for when the Memphis trip happened. But, for as freakishly detailed and complete my memory tends to be, my memories are ordered more in relation to each other than they are to a date on a calendar (*shrug*).

Incidentally, the only reason I know that Low came out in 2008 is because I just got done looking at Flo Rida's Wikipedia entry. And, the reason I was looking at that was because one of his more recent songs was featured in the promotional soundtrack of a Disney movie I'd Stumbled, earlier. I found the video to that song (which led me to Wikipedia) because I'd liked the song in the Disney promo and had punched in "song from wreck it ralph trailer" into Google.

Lions and Tigers and Bears (Oh My)!

So, this week LinkedIn, eHarmony and Last.FM all had their user password databases hacked. I was potentially affected by the first and by the last. Being married and not overly a fan of eHarmony's working-model, at any rate, I'm not a member of their site.

It used to annoy me when web sites forced you to login with your registered email address rather than your userid. To be honest, I've come to the point where I'd rather they only allowed you to use your email address as your login token. It raises the bar on brute-forcing your account, that way. Not only does an attacker need to guess your password (and I'm generally a fan of four-class pass-phrases), they need to guess your email address, as well (and email addresses tend to be much longer than userids, at any rate).

Granted, if attackers have breached an entire site via the back-end and dumped out the entire user list, they have access to your email address. And, if you use the same email address and password-pair across multiple sites, you're still fairly boned. Fortunately, that's not the case for me. I use unique addresses for each site I register with. So, just because the LinkedIn and Last.FM attackers have my authentication credentials to those two sites, they don't have my credentials to other sites - even if I happened to use the password component across more than one site.

Overall, one of the easiest ways to create unique email addresses is to do a "+TOKEN" email address. Sites like gmail support adding a "+token" to your base email address and still have resultant emails delivered to the base address. As an additional bonus, you can set up delivery-rules to automatically process such emails based on the original target address. Unfortunately, many of the websites I visit consider "ferricoxide+TOKEN@gmail.com" to be an invalid email address. This is just about as annoying as websites that limit me on the password string-length and on the characters I can use. C'mon, guys, this is 2012, not 1992. It's a different security environment out there and you should be doing everything you can to foster good security habits in your users - not hamstring them (this goes double for banks who seem to be the worst offenders with regard to forcing poor userid and password policies).

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Tony Awards? Seriously: Who Cares

I'll start by admitting that I don't understand the point of award shows. To be honest, I don't understand much of what I see in my online viewing guide. Maybe that's colored by the fact that, when I was a kid, there were like three channels (ABC, CBS and NBC) - four if you counted PBS. There just wasn't a lot of available air-time to put genuine garbage on the air, let alone niche-appeal garbage.

Award shows, in general, always just struck me as self-congratulatory wanking by entertainment industry X. That said, most of the award shows were about subjects that had wide enough appeal that I could at least sort of understand how a national audience might be interested in watching. The same can't be said for the Tony Awards. I mean, from a wide viewership standpoint, how many people (that don't live in the NYC area) actually see Broadway shows more than once or twice in a lifetime? I understand there's a decent amount of cross-over between more widely-popular entertainment mediums and Broadway. I also understand that some of the really successful shows have road versions of their shows - widening the audience of people that can see a show. But, all that aside, how many people are there that are both consumers of Broadway and Broadway-style productions are there out there and, more importantly, how many of them are interested in watching a self-congratulatory wank-fest? It just doesn't seem like there'd be enough to soak up an hour or more worth of prime advertising time. I guess that's why it's aired during summer repeats season though - it's the only way it can come even marginally close to having enough of an audience to draw advertising dollars.

Friday, May 18, 2012

The Mighty Keep Falling

I was Stumbling around, today, and found this article. To be honest, I've got mixed emotions on it.

I'm sitting here typing on an HP laptop. I chose this laptop because my laptop is my life and HP (and Dell, too) has superlative service when it comes to getting you quickly and conveniently back online in the face of inevitable breakage. Can't even come close to saying the same for Apple, Toshiba, Asus, etc. as they all have "service" offerings that are like a nightmarishly bad joke (seriously: if you own any of their products, buy a spare). The prospect of the likely loss of a quality service offering is a bit of a downer.

I also work for an organization that bought big into HP's software suites. Many of those products show a lot of promise. However, many are also poorly executed and even more poorly engineered, tested and supported.

HP tries to sell us on their professional services to make up for some of the inherent shortfalls int their products. However, when we've had the "experts" from HP's Professional Services group come on site (specifically that group - folks in their other groups - the ones that aren't really supposed to live or die based on their expertise and ability to provide post-sales services), it's been an exercise in pain and frustration from the abysmal quality of the people they send.

This probably comes as a good example of, "you get what you pay for". HP's services folks seem to be of the "whoever's cheapest" variety. I've worked in the professional services realm and "you get what you pay for" definitely comes into play in that line of business.

According to the linked article, HP is supposedly hoping to find salvation in the same path that other companies have - by selling professional services. Unfortunately, when the people that represent your company as "experts" and "professionals" come across so appallingly-poorly, it makes hiring qualified folks that much more difficult. Much as birds of a feather flock together, elite talent tends to avoid working for places they perceive to be well beneath their talents. So, this makes it a self-perpetuating problem and makes salvation through that pursuit even harder.

Oh well, should be interesting to see how this all plays out. I have to deal with some pretty hateful design flaws in HP products. This doesn't bode well for those flaws getting adequately addressed any time soon.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Modern Taxi Service

Friday night, my wife wanted to go to the Jack Rose Dining Saloon (in the Adams Morgan section of Washington, DC). Donna was wanting us to liberally avail ourselves of their rather complete whiskey menu, so she wanted to cab or Metro into the city. The closest Metro station to our destination was a five block walk from the restaurant, so we opted to take a cab, instead.

Normally, I call Red Top cab (out of Arlington). Unfortunately, their corporate policies preclude them from taking reservations between 20:00 and 03:00 on Fridays and Saturday nights. Worse, they could only promise us a cab in a forty minute window. Since Donna was not yet done prepping for a night on the town and we had reservations, I couldn't afford to risk using their service. So, I hit up Google Maps to see what other taxi options we might have.

I found a listing for Alexandria Yellow Cab and gave them a call. They were able to promise me a more reasonable service window and a cab that took credit cards (I don't frequently carry cash), so I set the reservation. Ten minutes before the cab was due to arrive, I received an SMS indicating the cab number, the time dispatched and an ETA. The cab arrived within five minutes of when the original call promised. We hopped in and were on our way.

As we got close to our destination, I slid my card in the back-seat credit card reader. The driver asked if I could pay cash, instead ("it's better for me," he said). I said that I preferred to pay with plastic as I was short on cash (not quite a lie: I was saving what cash I had for the cab back since cabs in the city, more often than not, don't take plastic at all - though DC is supposedly trying to change that - it's only 2012, after all). When we got to the drop-off point, the cabbie claimed that the credit card reader wasn't working. Odd, given that it had indicated that it had accepted my card.

I didn't feel like starting the evening out on the down note of arguing with the cabbie, so I dug through my pockets and scraped together exactly enough cash to pay the fare. Fucker was obviously dicking me over so I figured that turn-about was fair play. Need to call the cab company to find out whether or not the meter was actually broken or if the cabbie was trying to do something off the books (or whatever).

Oh well, at least it was a good night at the "saloon".

Friday, May 11, 2012

Dark Shadows: About What You'd Expect

My thoughts on Dark Shadows:

Was it worth the $36 that the local AMC charged for a pair of seats? No. Not by a long shot. That said, was I expecting it to be? No, not really.

I remember growing up with reruns of the original Dark Shadows running on one of the (very few) local broadcast TV stations. Frankly, I never really thought it was all that good. I really couldn't get past the production value and the, frankly awful story lines and dialog. Plus, I'm not really a fan of "all things vampires." Don't get me wrong, there've been some excellent vampire movies made, but they would have been excellent movies had they centered around vampires or not. But, maybe I was too young to understand it. Dunno.

I get that the original Dark Shadows had camp value. I get that a lot of people like that. My feelings tend to be that I need more than just camp and nostalgia to enjoy something. Something can be enjoyable and still be awful. I'm a fan of a lot of crap TV shows and movies.

At any rate, the Tim Burton version of Dark Shadows loses the camp associated with the original's shoddy production values. It replaces those shoddy production values with the, now, eminently predictable Tim Burton treatment: pancake makeup; pointlessly-blonded actresses; the presence of Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter and Danny Elfman's music; the "color" palette of muted pastels and greys and high-contrast, "never found in nature" colors. Don't get me wrong, I like that aesthetic, it's just "predictable", even if very well executed.

For better or worse - likely worse - they left the original's quality of dialog in place. They even opted to set it in the time-frame of the original serial. Dunno that I would have done that. If I'm gonna resurrect something, I think I'd do more than just update the visual production value and ape the rest (insert a shrug, here).

Oh well - I assume that my wife, Donna, liked it - and, to be honest, she's the only reason why I went to see it. She seems to love all things Burton. I just found it to be "meh". On a scale of Beatlejuice to Cabin Boy, I'd rate it somewhat lower than Alice in Wonderland: AIW was a decent pure-style work that's story/dialogue isn't quite clunky enough to be distracting; Dark Shadows is high on style, but the preservation of the original serial's clunky dialogue was distracting.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Avenge Me

I would like to thank the local AMC theatre for screwing my day up.

We've got an after-hours maintenance event, tonight. So, I figured I'd use my late-start day to go see The Avengers. The earliest available showing was the 3D IMAX showing. Only reason I picked it was because it started the earliest.

We got our glasses, our concession and our seats and waited for the movie to start.

The local AMC likes to show "special features" and commercials before the previews. As we sat there, the "special features" and commercials were running but silently. Hmm... Fortunately, when the previews came on, so did the sound.

Midway through the previews, the thing pops up saying "put on your IMAX 3D glasses now". Did as instructed, only to find that the left eyepiece was oddly and distractingly dark. Took the glasses off and noticed that the screen was pretty much crystal clear. At first, I thought "ok, they played the 'put on your glasses' thing too early". Then, the movie started and still it was more watchable without the glasses than with. So, I began to wonder, "did they put the wrong disk into the projector?"

Just after Loki had tesseracted-in and was instructed to put his "spear" down, the screen froze. Apparently, one of the joys of "watching the future of movies, today" is that the projection system can crash.

I figured, "take an early bathroom break and maybe they'll have it sorted out by the time I get back". I get back and the screen's still black. Un-good. I walk back outside to ask the two theatre staffers what's going on. I'm told "we're hoping to get the projector back online in about ten minutes". I ask if the projector problems were related to why the 3D glasses weren't functioning as expected. They informed me that "yes: the projector had been miscalibrated but the glasses should work as expected once the movie restarts".

Fifteen minutes pass and still no movie. Just as I'm about to get up to ask how long the "ten minutes" is going to continue, a theatre employee comes in to tell us that, because the projector's taking so long to reboot, that they have to cancel this showing because it will cause delays to the next one. We're then offerred free passes and the thoice of either a refund or free tickets to the next screening.

Given that I'd chosen this one for its start time - it would have allowed me to see the movie and still make it to work in plenty of time tonight's maintenance window - waiting for the 14:30 showing of a 2.5 hour movie just wasn't an option. So, we got in line for our passes and our refunds: an hour of my day wasted; a movie not seen and $20 spent on "medium-sized" hoglegs of soda and a burnt hotdog - concessions not refundable.

Thanks AMC: you really Mondayed things all up.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

The Adventures of the Cheap Geek

For starters, I'm a cheap bastard. Dunno if it's just upbringing or whether it's in my genes (since my family's more than half Scotish on both sides of the family and Scots are known for their thriftiness). I've also got geeky tendencies (I'm in IT, so that sorta follows, I suppose).

Having been a road-warrior for five years, I almost exclusively used my cell phone for my calling needs. For starters, I was gone five days out of seven, most weeks, and it just got to be habitual to use the cell phone, even when I was home. I was gonna straight up ditch the land line, but Donna wasn't comfortable with that notion (even though she almost exclusively used her cell for voice communications).

At any rate, after yet another price increase in my Verizon land-line service, I started to investigate other solutions. I'd finally switched off of DSL and moved to Cox's high-speed internet solution. Other than phone service, switching to cable internet utterly removed my need for a POTS line. Technically, I coulda gone VOIP when I still had ADSL, but, Verizon's "dry line" pricing for xDSL was, to say the least, "regressive". Freed of any compelling need for a land-line, I opted to cut the cord and go down the VOIP path.

Vonage was doing some kind of promotion, at the time, where the equipment and first two months of service were free on a 12 month commitment. So, I signed up. Things were ok for a couple of years. I even got my folks on Vonage because, they too, were tired of the continually increasing expense of POTS, even for the most basic of plans.

Still, I found myself just NEVER using my Vonage line. I did some research on options and discovered that, if I threatened to leave, I could get them to reduce my rates to about $10/month. So, I did that. Unfortunately, just like with POTS, miscellaneous "fees" started showing up. Still, it was cheaper than POTS.

In recent years, I'd started using Google Voice. So, even when using the Vonage line to make calls, I wasn't actually using any outbound minutes. I was going to see if I could get switched to a "no minutes" plan. At one point, Vonage used to offer such a plan, but had discontinued it in recent years. What's a cheap bastard like me to do?

Well, it turns out, that there's a company, ObiHai Technology, that makes a cheap and easy to setup VOIP TA. Even better, they occasionally team up with Amazon to run specials on the device, making an already cheap and easy solution even cheaper. I opted to buy an OBi100 during one of these promotions.

The nifty thing with the OBi100 and OBi110 (and, now, the OBi202!) is that they're configured to make leveraging your Google Voice account dead-easy. Basically, you plug the device into your home's IP network and let it sync up, go to the ObiTalk web page, create your account and follow the steps to locate and register your device. Then you go to your device's service configuration menu, plug in your Google Voice account information and you're able to make free outbound calls.

Unfortunately, Google Voice doesn't allow you to directly setup direct-to-SIP dialing (maybe that will change over time). That means, that, without some additional steps, the home line becomes and "outgoing only" type of thing. In and of itself, that's not awful - given that the only calls I seem to recevie on the home line seem to  be telemarketing. However, it means that using GV as a "follow me" number is negatively impacted.

That said, there is a way around that problem. It requires setting up two other services: 1) a free SIP provider (I chose CallCentric - since if keeping my Verizon/Vonage number is a priority, I can get it ported for a fee); and 2) use a free DID provider like IPKALL to provide a bridge from Google Voice to the SIP provider. I followed the steps at Acrobits to set it all up. Basically (in case that link ever dies):

  1. Open an account with the free SIP-service provider of your choice
  2. Configure that account into your OBi device
  3. Set up an IPKall account to get a free DID - if using CallCentric:
    1. Choose your account type: SIP
    2. Choose Area Code for your IPKall Number: your choice
    3. SIP username: callcentric number, starts with 1777
    4. Hostname or IP address: in.callcentric.com
    5. Email Address: any valid email address Password: Google Voice Email
  4. Set up Google voice to forward calls to that DID

Couple notes:

  1. Supposedly, Google is only continuing free calling through the end of 2012. However, they've previously announced they'd be discontinuing free calling but changed their minds before the prior deadlines. So, "who knows".
  2. I've also heard that CallCentric has some stability issues. There's other free SIP providers out there: a quick Google search will show you your options.

Thus far, works like a champ. The OBi devices also come with dialers for iPhone and Android that allow you use your data plan for your calls rather than using minutes. You just connect your smart-phone's OBi-dialer to your account and it leverages your OBi device as a call forwarding bridgehead.

Monday, April 30, 2012

An Exercise for the Reader

I think the various mathematics courses I took while in grade school and college may have permanently warped me. In particular, I think the various "advanced" mathematics did it. If you've never experience the joys of trigonometry, calculus and the like, they you may have never heard the phrase "the rest is left as an exercise to the reader". Each and every math teacher I had that was teaching a discipline that required doing "proofs" or running large calculations loved to hit us with variations on that one. Oh... And "you must show all work".

These days, I earn my living in the IT field. While much of what I do is designed to support the smooth running of Operations, I am not - nor have I actively been - part of Operations in nearly a decade. While Operations has its challenges, its challenges quickly fall into the category of "been there - done that". For me, once I've solved a problem once, the closest I want to come to solving that problem a second time is figuring out how to make it so I never have to see that problem again. For me, the joy isn't so much in executing the solution to a problem as it is identifying what's causing the problem and figuring out how to solve the problem for now and forever. I much prefer to come up with the solution and allow others to execute that solution (so I can go on to finding other problems' solutions). In essence, I like to give people the tools/paths to the solution of the problem but otherwise leave the fixing of the problem ans "an exercise to the reader".

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Revelations

Prior to my married years, I ate a lot of Taco Bell. I'd always had my "food" covered in the magical Fire Sauce.

Today's dental surgery's post-operative care instructions said "no spicy foods" and soft foods like "ground meat". So, I decided to stop by Taco Bell. I ordered some ground "beef" soft tacos. I was amazed at how utterly bereft of flavor Taco Bell's tacos are when not slathered in fire sauce. In fact, were it not for the taste of bandage in my mouth, the meal would have been utterly flavor-free.

Fmeh.

On Technology and Vendor Presentations

I hate sitting through vendor technology briefs. At the end, everyone's always asking "so, what'd you think". And, frankly, by the time some vendors' sales team is doing a technology brief, they're doing it about technology that's been around, in one form or another, for years - sometimes decades.

Technology generally tends to be iterative (even the "groundbreaking" stuff isn't all that earth-shaking if you were into the things that lead to it). As such, if you've worked with a given set of technology long enough, you can tend to predict where it's likely to (or at least "might") go. Thus, when it finally gets there - particularly when it finally gets there to the point of (sorta) being "easy" - there's just nothing all that surprising about it. So, it's hard to be impressed.

I kinda feel sorry for the people that are presenting the shiny/nifty/"new" stuff. They're spouting off stuff that is "new" to 90% of the people they present it to. Instead, when they run into me, they're hit with a barrage of "this sounds like a combination of technologies X and y: how does it differ from them and what do they have in common", or "this sounds like it's based on a product you bought X years ago: is it that same product and, if so, what have you changed/improved in that product since you bought it" or "this sounds like a product one of your competitors was peddling 'X' month/years ago: how is your version different (or why is does it appear to be missing a competing feature of the older product)".

Oh well.

Overall, I don't care about shiny/new/etc. At the end of the day, all I really care about is "does it solve a problem I haven't already solved" and/or "does it make it easier to do things I'm already doing". The rest is just window-dressing.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Sportsmanship Versus Honesty

I'm a fan of the Philadelphia Flyers. That means, after Sunday's 5-1 win over the (hated) Pittsburgh Penguins, I'm a happy camper. My team moves on and the Pens start playing golf early.

After the game, the press had their interviews with each team's players and coaches:

In that video, the Penguins coach, to me, says the honest thing. He acknowledges the Flyers win, but he doesn't go on to fall back on the trite "we wish them luck" bullshit.

For whatever reason, we've come to equate "sportsmanship" with non-genuine displays. We expect the losing team to be "gracious in defeat". So, when someone says something honest rather than polite, people get their panties in a bunch. 

It's not like Bylsma said, "I hope those fuckers lose and lose embarrasingly". No, all he said was "I can't wish them luck". I'm fine with that. In fact, I gotta kind of respect the man for being honest in a time where we value politeness over honesty.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Freedom Means Having Nothing to Lose

The beauty of being a Flyers fan (any Philly-sports fan, actually) - and presumably a member of the Flyers organization - is that you don't have to be ashamed of who or what you are. In fact, one of the joys is that you can actually enjoy it - revel in it even. Even better, when your opposition comes down to your level, you can enjoy watching them grovel in it.

As a PSU alum, it hurts to bring this up, but it's germane.... Why was the media so quick to jump on Penn State over the Sandusky stuff? Because PSU had always painted themselves as "the good guys" and "the ones who are better than all that" (whatever you might want to lump under "all that"). Any time you can show that the high-and-mighty have feet of clay, its "news".

That's why, unless there's other things to stop them, the media's gonna start chirping at the Pens. The Pens set themselves as above all this, but then totally blew that out of the water and on national TV. Congrats, Pittsburgh Penguins: you totally stepped on your dicks out there.

At any rate, yeah, even where the Philadelphia Flyers were complicit in today's festivities, they weren't the ones pissing on their own white knight reputations. That's what the Sports Illustrated writer seems to miss when trying to make his point.

Shanahan: You've Made It Worse, Not Better

Dear Brendan:

When you were appointed to be league disciplinarian, I was hopeful that this was some kind of sign from the league that, instead of just paying lip-service to "the new NHL", that the league was finally serious about things.

I'll be the first to admit that I'm a fan of the old, rough-and-tumble style of hockey that I grew up with in the 70s and 80s. I've not liked the fact that I've had to watch my beloved Broad Street Bullies have to ignore their lineage and adjust to playing in "the new NHL". That said, I'm an adult. I'm a fan of the sport. I like seeing my favorite players have long, productive careers. So, I was willing to adjust to the changes. And, admittedly, while the game is different, it's at least as exciting as the bloody games of my youth.

That said, as someone who's been willing to give up enjoyment of the old time style of hockey, I feel as though I've been sold a bill of goods. I watch my team finally mostly complete the transformation from winning through grinding the opposition into the dust to winning through pure skill and observance of the fundamentals. Then, I watch as certain teams are allowed to get away with the hockey equivalent of murder, game in and game out. I feel like I was suckered. I feel like I was told "if you give up your weapons, I'll make it worth your while" only to be shivved by the people that promised me a new and better hockey experience.

Under your tenure, I've watched the league go from questionable officiating and supplementary discipline to something that's no longer questionable. The agenda that used to just be hinted at is now quite clear.

Overall, I think that your appointment has made things worse than they were before. In the beginning, you seemed really interested in ensuring that everyone toed the player-safety line. Then, somewhere around the time of this year's AllStar Game, it all changed. Things that got anyone suspended - star or repeat-offender - now don't even get a full review. Now, it feels like it's open-season out there. It feels like the players are in a position of having to figure out what's actually allowed and what's not; what will be enforced and what won't; and, worst of all, who is subject to sanction and who's immune. It's awful.

I don't know if the change I've watched unfold is because you've changed your mind or the league has forced you to change your mind. I can only hope that it's the latter. Otherwise, I really have to question your integrity and your ethics. I have to question everything about you as it relates to hockey.

In the end, I can only hope that you redeem yourself by looking back on the body of disciplinary work you've authored, this season, and say to yourself, "I've jobbed this up good and proper" and resign. I hope that, if the jobbing was at the behest of others, you use the freedom associated with your resignation to let the world know, "hey, wasn't my fault: I was told by the league to sacrifice players' safety for the greater-good of the league's bottom-line." 

One way or the other, you need to do something to fix the mess you've involved yourself in and helped to create.

Dear Mario Lemieux:

Your "team" is really harshing my ability to have an "ugly Flyers fan" buzz. I mean, how can the Flyers possibly begin to compete with what your your "model of professionalism" team does? If someone in Orange and Black did even half as dirty of shit that your team puts into even a single game, they'd be banned for the freaking season.

So, at this point, from all Flyers fans, I have to conceded the dirty-play crown to the Pittsburgh organization. It only took you the best part of thirty years to do it, but, congrats: the crown is well and truly yours. Perhaps you and your buddy Bettman can use it as a prop in your sexy-time games. Sindey would look positively divine in a crown.

 

As a bit of a PS: when the Flyers first earned the crown in the 70s, it was a tactic to get them to a couple of Cups and appeal to the blue-collar heart of a city. It wasn't just the tantrums of a team full of spoiled, coddled, and rule-immune brats. Maybe you ought to rethink what you allow the people that wear your organization's logos to do.

Delaying the Inevitable

Why does the league promote and protect Sindey Crosby? Because they really don't want to have to re-align the league to accommodate the Las Vegas (or Kansas City) Penguins.

Let's face it: when the Crosby years are five years done, the Pens "fans" currently filling seats at the Consol Center will be back to doing what they did after Lemieux retired and Jagr shipped out (not buying season tickets).

Don't get me wrong: I know plenty of real Pens fans. They're the ones who have 20 year old jerseys that they've either worn since they were new or were family hand-me-downs (and don't bear Crosby's or Malkin's numbers on them) Unfortunately, it seems like most of them aren't the ones in a geographical position to actually keep the Pens' arena filled. I should probably also cut Pittsburgh some slack: it's not like the city's economically big enough to fully support more than one team. Sadly for the Pens, the team the city's chosen to support is the Steelers.

Engineering Priorities

I know that Plus is probably more geek-oriented than other social networks, but the fact that the NHL playoffs don't really seem to be "trending" in any meaningful way is kinda ridiculous. It probably doesn't help that most of the NHL teams that have a social media presence have that presence almost exclusively on Twitter and/or Facebook (and, seems, most frequently, FaceBook by way connecting their official FB account to their Twitter account).

But why is it that entitities like the NHL concentrate their efforts almost exclusively on sites like Twitter and/or FaceBook? For starters,  FaceBook, Twitter and other networks make it dead-easy to post once and get your message out to a number of sites at once. Google's Plus? Not so much. Crap like this is why Google really needs to work on their cross-platform sharing APIs (have they even published anything meaningful, yet??).

For me, this lack of being able to see updates via Plus is the second biggest reason (behind friends' not being willing to move off FB) that I still need to log into FB and/or Twitter. I come to Plus because I want to. I have absolutely nothing I could (correctly or incorrectly) conflate with a need to login to Plus.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Just Like Old Times...

I used to work for Verizon (technically Digex, at the time) as a UNIX engineer (glorified systems administrator, to be honest). One of the most annoying things I had to deal with was getting customer call about problems with their host, doing diagnostics, determining that there was a networking issue, calling our NetOps folks to see what might be going on (usually after telling them what was fucked up on their side), then, minutes later having everything "magically working again, asking "what'd you change" and being told "nothing: everything's still the same".

Really? I called you with a problem. I told you what the problem was. I listened to you type for a few seconds and then things suddenly started working, but you made no changes on your side to cause things to suddenly start working again? Ok: sounds legit.

I'd thought I'd gotten away from that, given that I last worked for Verizon in May of 2004. Apparently, even though I've gone on to bigger and better, networking at Verizon is still the same.

Today, I was killing time, waiting for my wife to fill a prescription at the local Walgreens. Not wanting to participate in the slow death that is sitting at the pharmacy counter, I opted to sit out in my car and listen to Last.FM and mess around on Google Plus.

All was going well until the music stopped. I flipped back to Last.FM from Plus and found that I couldn't get the music to restart. Kept getting "insufficient content" errors. I flipped back to my profile page and noticed that the app couldn't load my user profile. At first, I figured "Last.FM must be having server problems."

So, I flipped back to Plus to bitch about it. I noticed that it was taking hitting "post" multiple times in order for a post or a comment to actually get posted without a "can't post at this time" error message popping up.

After about 20 minutes of this nonsense, I dialed *611 to see if VZW might be having issues. The friendly CSR representative took my information, checked her systems and informed me that she wasn't seeing any issues. She suggested that, after I got off the call with her, I should take my battery out for about thirty seconds and then restart my phone - that that should clear up any phone-caused issues.

Um. Yeah. Sounds legit.

At any rate, I opted to not pull my battery out. However, in about half the time that it would have taken to have followed her instructions and for my phone to finish rebooting, I had full, uninterrupted network connectivity back. Last.FM was happy and I had tunes again.

I'm almost certain that were I to have re-dialed *611 and asked "what'd you guys have to do to fix things," I would get the usual Verizon NetOps answer of "nothing. We didn't change anything".

Humor in Strange Places

Earlier today (14:00 on Friday the 13th, to be exact), I had a double root canal procedure performed. Prior to the procedure, I was, to say the least, "anxiety-ridden". I mean, jus the name of the procedure is anxiety-inducing. "Root canal".

I mean, I'd always heard horror stories, but never really knew what it was. Something about the name made it sound like they bored into the roots of your teeth through your gums. To be honest, what they actually do isn't much better: the drill into your teeth through the top an obliterate your nerves. Even knowing that, ultimately, there'd be no nerves left to feel pain, I definitely went into the procedure with a feeling of dread. It being scheduled for a Friday the thirteenth didn't help those feelings at all - though, I guess the scheduling seemed "apt" (for lack of a better word). So, I brought a 0.5mg Xanax pill with me to help keep myself from climbing the walls.

Now, I don't know whether it was the Xanax, my underlying (probabaly "twisted" sense of humor) or that the procedure went exceptionally well. Whatever it was, it wasn't the horror show I was expecting.

To be honest, as I sat there in the chair, with a rubber block between my left-side molars, mouth utterly-numbed and a rubber-dam stretched across my mouth like a workman's tarp, I really mostly felt like a carpentry project. Or, maybe I felt like a prop in a BDSM scene? Whatever. The situation isn't one that I'd volunteer for, but it wasn't the horror-show I was expecting.

Before the novocaine and fixing of the rubber components, I'd taken my Xanax. The doctor was nice enough to have his assistant crush it to a fine powder so that I could stuff it under my tongue and get the effects much more quickly than normal. So, by the time the work started to go down, I was fairly relaxed. In fact, I almost nodded off a few times while the procedure was going on. Dunno whether that was simple boredom, the Xanax or a combination of the two.

/me shrugs

At any rate, the situation was such that I was finding many things about it amusing:

  • As they explained the hardware they would be putting in my mouth - in particular the rubber dam - my mind couldn't help but wander back to highschool. My time in highschool was during the peak of the HIV hysteria. I remember the health classes and other materials promulgating the use of rubber dams to make oral sex safe.
  • As the doctor began drilling, and I smelled the smokey scent associated with it, I was reminded of the old Bill Cosby commedy routine that talked about the burning smell, among other things.
  • I notice that the scope he was doing the procedure through was a Carl Zeiss machine. Now, Carl Zeiss has, historically, made some very fine optics. That says, they're an old German company. They were also very popular with the Nazis, for a while. So, it seemed amusingly apt that they would be the purveyors of such fine tortured devices.
  • This led me to thoughts of comedy movie Nazis conducting comical torture sessions.
  • This led me to have amusing images of Nazi uniform-clad BDSM people I've seen over the years
  • This led me to think, "I wonder how many dental professionals practice BDSM in their personal lives"

And so, my mind continued to drift from one amusing thing to another. At several points in the procedure, as I chuckled to myself at the thoughts running through my head and the overall silliness of the situation, the doctor would stop what he was doing. As a good, conscientious doctor, he was concerned that I was in pain.

I wasn't, but with all the hardware in my mouth, I wasn't really in a position to articulate that, "no, I'm just amused by the situation." Probably just as well, he'd probably have thought it might be a good idea to call the guys from the local psych ward to come pick up the wacko that thinks having a root canal is funny.

At the end of it all, the least pleasant part of the procedure was the not being able to talk during it. I mean, with all the things running through my head, I had a real need to make snarky commentary. The fact that I couldn't was rather frustrated.

Now, I'm sitting here and my teeth feel like they've been replaced by shards of broken glass. I went into the bathroom and discovered one more bit of comedy: pulling my lips back far enough to survey the ravaged teeth, I realized my mouth now looks like I'm a carny-worker. Awesome.

No. I'm not writing this while kited on Vicodin. While the doctor was nice enough to write me a script, I'll likely end up not using it. Historically, pain killers don't so much remove my ability to feel pain as make me so dizzy and nauseous that I'm too distracted to fully process the pain. So, the script is sitting with my keys and credit cards, unfilled. Chances are, it will stay that way.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Saving the Movie-Going Experience

Today, I was reading this article and thinking, "as an adult with disposable income who still goes to the movies at least once a month, I will damned-well stop going if I have to put up with assholes texting throughout the movie". I'm not going to continue to spend $12-15/seat if I have to put up with texting and other, related annoyances during those movies. Good luck with allowing texting to sufficiently increase the youth audience to counter-balance people like me boycotting the "theatre experience".

And, by the way, ticket prices play a HUGE role in the decision to see a movie. I can tolerate paying $12-15/seat for a movie if the experience is generally worth the price. However, when taking my wife to the movies is a $20/hr proposition, the bar on the quality of the experience is even higher.

I've got NetFlix at home. It sets me back $10/month. If I happen to select a movie that sucks, I can terminate the movie, go back to the selection-menu and try again with the only thing lost being time. Can't do that at the local googolplex. If I choose the wrong movie, I'm out $20-40 and my evening's pretty much ruined.

So, yeah. Hollywood needs to do something to make the gamble associated with movie-going either being a surer or more low-cost bet. Otherwise, just not a lot of point making the gamble.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Office-Hot

How do you know when someone is "office hot"? When you work in an building of several thousand people, 80% of whom are male, "office hot" is the well-dress but merely (real world) ok-looking chick trailing 4+ sadly desperate-looking guys behind her every time she's in a public area (the cafeteria at lunch, between meetings, from and (especially) to the parking lot...

Seriously, guys: we live in a metro region that's more than 50% female. There's lots of women around, many of them rather hotter than the one you're looking for table scraps from. Just because she's bitching about her dickhead boyfriend to you over lunch doesn't mean she's going to be impressed by how nice you are and want to find an office supply closet to jump you in. You're just sad and (rather) obvious-looking when you're trailing her like a pack of clumsy puppies.

Ugh.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Wrong Trajectories

Assuming I live to be as old as some of my relatives did, am I going to be able to look back on my life and marvel at how much things have changed since I was a kid? I mean, my grandparents and grand-uncle (who died at 105) got to see a LOT of really meaningful change. Somehow, I doubt I'm going to get to see anything so meaningful as the transition form man not even having powered flight to being on the moon. Right now, it seems like the best I'm going to be able to point to is nifty consumer gadgets. In fact, on the trajectory we're on, I'll be able to say "I remember moon mission" as a kid but have nothing even remotely as awe-inspiring in my adulthood. Pretty sad, actually.

Musings on Mega Lotteries

Each time one of the big US lotteries reach stupidly-high prize levels, it causes me to ruminate on a number of things. I've never had illusions that I might win a meaningfully, life-changing prize, but it's still nice to think of the possibilities. This time, as the prize number became more and more stratospheric, it caused me - prompted or of my own accord, a number of things.

I'm kind of a statistics geek - not so much from the standpoint of being massively into specific statistics but more from the standpoint of being amused by people's habits and interests. I've got to think that things like mega lotteries cause all sorts of interesting queries to end up in Google's data banks. It would be sort of interesting to see what lottery-related questions are asked, how they're asked, how frequently they're asked and how the relative frequencies change as new numbers about the size of the prize come out. For instance, did people ask questions like (because, obviously, these are questions that occurred to me):

  • What are the community-property rules of my state and how do they relate to lottery winnings?
  • How often do married lottery winners end up divorced after winning?
  • Is the post-winning divorce rate any higher than the average divorce rate or the divorce rates of couples who've experienced severe economic stress?
  • Of those divorces:
    • how many are prompted by the lottery winnings (i.e., bickering over what to do with it, etc.)
    • how many are simply enabled by the lottery winnings. That is, are they couples who would have otherwise divorced, sooner, but didn't have the financial wherwithal to do so (say because they couldn't afford to live on their respective individual incomes or whatever) or were they simply not quite in love any more, but stayed together because they couldn't think of a compelling enough reason to break up.

You're probably noticing a theme, here. Yeah: I'm married. So, I think like a married guy. I can't honestly say that, after winning a huge jackpot, I'd still be long-married afterwards. Not that I'm actively seeking dissolution of my marriage, but money does weird things....

The other thing(s) that come up are peoples' reactions to lottery moneys they never receive.

More than a few people, after the lottery has ended with a winner (that isn't them), express things akin to sour grapes. There's a tendency to look at whether the winner(s) were deserving of the prize awarded. Often times, it's simple matter of being able to identify with the winners (e.g., "that's why I never win: I don't live in a mobile home"). Other times it's along the lines of "he already had money - he didn't need to win that prize" (because, hey, there's anyone out there that needs $640Mn - especially more than the person complaining does)

Whatevs. Not like someone esle's winning the jackpot diminishes me for having not won. Got other things to worry about (some might say, "clearly, given the bulleted list of questions, above").

The most baffling thing, however are the people who seem to think that certain prizes aren't worth winning. It's compounded by who some of these people are. Case in point was a couple years ago, just after one of the big lotteries had paid out a $300Mn+ prize. At any rate,  I'd had an extra dollar in my pocket, that day, so I opted to buy a lottery ticket. The prize in that day's drawing was "only" 15Mn. The woman behind the counter asked me why I was wasting my money on such a small payout. All I could think was, "fucker, 15Mn is more than you're gonna see in a lifetime (as a 7Eleven clerk, she couldn't have been clearing much more than minimum-wage): who are you to turn up your nose at 'only' $15Mn?" I mean, seriously, while even a $1Mn lottery winning wouldn't necessarily be life-altering to the point of allowing me to retire early, etc, it would still allow me to pay off my mortgage. Given that my mortgage sets me back $30K/year, even if I changed nothing else about my life, I could either just piss away $30K/yr on things like vacations and "toys", or, I could take a job I really liked rather than one that ones dictated by financial needs, etc.. So, yeah, it's "only" $1Mn - I just don't how you could ever possibly question why anyone would "waste" $1 on such a "small" prize.

Oh well, there's no accounting for what goes through other peoples heads.

So You Wanna Screen Employee's FaceBook Pages?

It used to be, some employers liked to do online background check of job candidates by seeing what people were publicly-posting to the FaceBook, Twitter and other online presences. While creepy, this was all public material, so, you could let it slide. Recently, as people have become more sharing-aware, people are doing things a bit more privately. A once useful resource for info-trolling is becoming less so. What's the reasonable thing to do: realize that a tool is no longer useful and move on to bigger and better things or try to force your way into people's intentionally private lives?

Here's a hint: trolling for things that used to be public gave you a barometer of how much discretion potential hires displayed. as an employer. At this point, it should be more than enough to be able to determine, "this guy understands discretion" or "this guy is completely indescrete". An employer should never try to think that it's their right to rifle through a candidates off-the-clock time.

Here's how I look at it if you go to check up on a candidate and find nothing public on their FB page:

  • The stuff posted to their FaceBook page (etc.) was set to be visible to specific audiences was it was done so for a reason
  • Your insistance on logging into their account gives you more than just a view of the candidate's live, it exposes eveverythin their friends have shared. While it may be arguable that it's reasonable for you to see what your candidate is sharing, it is completely unreasnoabl and unjustifiable to try to see what others are sharing with your candidate. Even if the candidate is willing to give up their own privacy, they have no right to hand over the privacy of their friends and you have no right to demand it and no justifiable reason to business see it.
  • FB is single signon service for a lot of other sites. By demanding access to your candidate's FaceBook profile, you're also demanding access to every site that uses the FaceBook SSO engin. You compromise privacy on all those sites as well - many of which are even less relavant to the suitability of the candidate than what they may be saying on FaceBook.
  • For anyone - employer, employee, job candidate or a retiree - entering credentials on a foreign computer is risky at best. If it ain't your computer, you never know if there's a keylogger installed on that system. Worse, you don't know if any such keyloggers are controlled by the computer owner (the employee or their employer) or whether it's controlled by the creator of malware.
  • Given that FaceBook info is a treasure-trove of information for identity thieves, it exposes ALL of the candidate's other accounts - whether they leverage the FB SSO or not - to informed-cracking attempts ("Bob has a pet dog named 'Sparky': wonder if that's one of his password-recovery answers?").
  • Depending on how an employer is running their computers, it's also possible that the candidate's FaceBook profile may have other kinds of hidden treasures. A sloppy (or privacy-conscious but devious) job candidate may have malware apps in their profile. Logging into that profile may provide a nifty vector for malware to enter your computing environment. And, frankly, if your invasion of your candidates privacy ended up damaging your network, you would absolutely deserve it.

Overall, it seems to me that, if a potential employer asks for FaceBook (et. al.) information, they should be joint and severally liable to the account-owner, any site that uses the FaceBook SSO engin, everyone on the candidate's friends list (directly or indirectly) and to any site breached using information from that snooped-on FaceBook account to guess credential-recovery information. I have to think that a half-competent lawyer is going to be able to arrange quite a respectable class-action suit against the snooping employer. I also have to think that a lot of people are gonna want to help with that effort, as well.

To me, as a smart employer, it just wouldn't be worth any information gained from such snooping when measured against all the potential damage it could create or all of the legal liability it would cause to be assume. Even if the ethics of it are merely questionable, all of the other possibilities just scream, "don't do it".

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Riddle Me This, Batman

For the last couple months, my laptop's built-in WiFi has been getting progressively flakier. I finally got around to calling HP to see about warranty service (3 year warranty on this beast). The helpful CSR asked me for my identifying info to verify my warranty coverage, then asked me to go into device manager to see which WiFi option was installed in my laptop.

I'd always *thought* I'd had the BroadComm 802.11a/b/g/n+BlueTooth in it. However, Device Manager said I had an Intel Centrino Ultimate-N 6300 AGN adapter. This is a user-replaceable component, so, HP sent me out a replacement.

The replacement arrived Tuesday. Since it was mostly working, Tuesday, I put off putting it in till it crapped out completely, this evening. I powered the thing down, unplugged it and popped the battery out. I removed the screw from the panel over where the replacement WiFi card plugs in and opened it up.

Now, here's where it gets really fucking interesting: there was a SLOT for the WiFi adapter, but there was nothing in the goddamned slot. Even more, not only is the slot empty, but there's nothing rattling about inside the case. Obviously, I'm wondering "how the fuck did this thing's wifi connectivity *EVER* work??" But, I pop the new adapter into the empty slot, button her up, restore the battery and power cord and power on. WiFi's working and happy, again.

So, I gotta wonder, "do I now have two WiFi adapters in this beast that have the potential to conflict if the original ever wakes up again? Or, was the original one integrated and the presence of something in the slot deactivates it?" This leads to the final mystery of, "if the latter is the case, why the hell did they send RMA paperwork?"

I fucking hate mysteries when it comes to computers.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Life As An Engineer

Today, I think I coined a new work-related term: "multi-blocking". It's sorta like multi-tasking, but different.

At any rate... "Multi-blocking" is the (necessary) habit of running multiple, concurrent projects, but letting "blockers" determine which project goals you're actively working towards at any given time. That is, you work on a project until some dependency stops you, then hop onto the next most pressing project that isn't blocked.

Other interruptions to multi-blocking can be "suddenly critical" things that aren't on your project plans being dumped into your lap. These either get added to the multi-blocking queue or supercede everything in it.

The big down-side of this working-model is when you reach a state where you're 100% blocked. Then, it's total frustration time. If this happens frequently enough, or you're given a superceding task that also blocks, it can cause a total freak-out of frustration and denial of satisfaction.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

WTF, NBC?

To be honest, I fucking hate when hockey games are covered by NBC. While it's awesome that, when NBC covers games, I get to see them in high-definition, the cost of that high-definition coverage is I have to listen to the inane chatter of Pierre McGuire, Mike Emrick and Eddie Olczyk (and other seemingly worthless sportscasters). Of course, it's even better when they go to the studio: the best they could come up with is Mike Milbury?? Good Christ.

NBC: you're a big network. You have lots of money. You have a big name. You have no fucking competition for talent. Why the fuck do you give us this cast of clowns, year after fucking year? What the hell is wrong with your organization that you can't draw real talent - and, given how much money and name-value you have to have, it's gotta be that your organization sucks so much that good people won't work for you at any price.

At least now I understand why, when Fox won the NFL contract, they were able to snag the Madden crew and the Bradshaw crew. It's gotta be an organizational thing: no one wants to work for NBC. And, given the quality of camera-coverage of games - both NFL and NHL - this extends not just in the broadcast booth, but into the control room and the camera crews.

Awful. Just. Fucking. Awful.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Beware The Genie

Often times, it seems like life is governed by a mischievous djinn. Life frequently seems all too eager to give you exactly what you've asked for, even if what you've asked for isn't really what you meant.

When seeking "balance" in life, it's a good idea to know what that can mean. On the face, "balance" seems to be a worthy goal: no one part of your life dominates the rest. However, just wanting "balance" leaves a lot of wiggle-room for the Universe to exert its interesting sense of humor. It means that, if your life has, on the whole, been pleasant, that seeking balance implies that you need to offset the pleasant parts with misery. It can also mean that, if one area of your life is miserable, "balance" could be enforced by making everything miserable (uniform-misery is its own kind of "balance").

The Universe can be annoyingly literal. If you don't want it to screw you over, you need to be very specific in what you ask for so that there's no "wiggle-room" left for creative interpretations.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Sales Don'ts

Wasted two+ hours of my life meeting with a vendor for a lunchtime presentation.

The lunch was at a restaurant that, of the dozen or so times I've had to go, I've had an edible meal maybe twice. None of those two occasions coincided with a meeting. I'm pretty sure that Rosa Mexicano is unable to make meals for groups and have the results turn out well. Today, I just skipped th food altogether - which was easy, given that they opted for family-style service and I seemed to be sitting in a passing dead-zone (oh well). So, needless to say, as we were entering the second hour of the meeting, I was beginning to itch for the door so I might go some place and get food.

The seating, overall, was weird. Normally, when we've had meetings at Rosa Mexicano, there's five or six six- to eight-top tables set up and we spread ourselves out amongst them. The vendor's sales team didn't want people staying too far from the action, so they opted to array four tables into a horseshoe arrangement. Now, I get what they were trying to accomplish, but forcing my to sit cheek-by-jowl with others - especially when food's going to be served and even more especially when it results in tons of wasted space in the room - isn't a way to get on my good side. I like having plenty of personal space. I find being crowded to be unsettling and detracts from my ability to attend to things other than the fact that I'm being crowded.

Given who the presentation was for - a group of engineers who worked for an organization that uses closed networks - one wonders why the vendor's sales folks were so keen to crow about the ability to manage their storage with an iPad app. Given our environment, ability to manage devices from a moble phone or tablet just isn't a priority. Given my feeling about Apple, in particular, it quickly became grating how much time was wasted on the topic.

Lastly, I've been dealing with technology for a long time, now. I've used it in a lot of "edge case" and "forward-thinking" scenarios. That means that I've seen a lot of interesting technologies used in a lot of interesting ways. Giving me a presentation that slags on buying component technologies and going the DIY route, and then pushing how great your solution is when all I'm seeing is shit that I've done years' or decades' previous just doesn't sit well. The reason all your crap is, essentially, old hat to me is because the stuff I did was "DIY". Doing things "DIY" means that I don't have to wait five-plus years for some vendor to discover "hey, if we package this into a turn-key bundle, we could sell the hell out of this stuff". So, don't slag on DIY, especially if your solutions are all things I've already seen, played with or done.

I dunno ...the whole thing just rubbed me the wrong way. Yeah, some nifty, potentially useful stuff, but it was all presented so wrong. It was like a flashback to my SGI days: great technology that was poorly-sold.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Shifting Priorities

One thing I do feel fortunate about when I grew up: even though NASA was winding down, they still did a lot during my youth. I still had the ability, while watching Star Trek reruns, to think "we've got guys working towards those ends - someday, some of this stuff might happen".

 

I'm also kind of sad that my introduction to Tyson was via a damned Internet meme...

 

But, hey: at least the guys on Wall Street didn't have to worry about losing their homes. At least the guys on Wall Street didn't have to worry about consequences. And, that's the real "American Dream" now, isn't it: to be so rich that you're untouchable.

Fuck space.