Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The "Rightness" of Heros

You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain
Is a great line. There's a resonance to it. There's something to it that feels right and true. But why is that? Is that simply because, as watchers of heroism, we so recently end up with disappointment when the heros fall. Is it because such falls seem so commonplace that there's almost an inevitability to it?

And why is that it that such seeming inevitability has set it? Is it that, once you become a hero, you feel compelled to do more and more to achieve that heroic affirmation ...and that with each successive heroic act, that affirmation conveys a feeling of what was done was The Right ThingTM? And is it similarly inevitable that, with being so frequently credited for doing The Right ThingTM that you begin to assume that you, yourself, are inherently RightTM. And being RightTM, you reach a state of feeling above reproach? And, once you reach that state, you start doing things that you think are right, but are, really, only right in your mind?

I dunno. Don't really have answers - just questions that are probably very trite. It only really comes up because some neuron was provoked to fire in response to all of the turmoil surrounding various PDs ...especially of the NYPD. In any case, it feels like similar forces are at play.

A Case for the Divine?

Today, I was grazing through my news feed when I found a post that linked out to an article in the Australian Business Review positing that the failure to detect intelligent life might be indicative of humanity being extra-special. Specifically, it posits that such specialness might be an argument for the divine.

Reading the article, the author makes one argument that particularly stands out to me:
As our knowledge of the universe increased, it became clear that there were far more factors necessary for life than Sagan supposed. His two parameters grew to 10 and then 20 and then 50, and so the number of potentially life-supporting planets decreased accordingly. The number dropped to a few thousand planets and kept on plummeting.
To me, this seems a flawed interpretation of what science has shown. To me, it's less a question of uniqueness of life than of life that is intelligent, technologically advanced and sufficiently proximal to us within a given temporal/spacial radius.

As noted in the article, science is telling us that there should be a mind-boggling number of planets within just our galaxy, let alone the universe as a whole. Also as noted in the article, even if only a small fraction of that mind-boggling number is in their host stars' habitable regions - where habitable is defined as capable of supporting lifeforms relatively similar to our own, water- and carbon-based biologies - you still have an absolutely huge number of planets that could potentially support life. Yet, in spite of this, there is apparent silence. So how do we explain this without resorting to "we're special and it may be because God made us special".

To my own mind, we have to take a different path to our conclusion. Admittedly, my path isn't one that necessarily says that we're unique in all the history of the entirety of the universe. We're probably unique, but it may just be a matter of timing.

First, let's surmise that there's a planet 50 light-years from Earth.

Then, let's further assume that this planet is capable of supporting some form of life.

Let's further assume that this other planet has had the capability to produce life that evolves to the point of sentience at least once (before calamity strikes or something else happens - see The Great Filter).

Let's further assume that this sentience has evolved civilization (before calamity strikes or something else happens).

Let's further assume that this civilization has progressed, technologically, to the point that they are broadcasting the type of detectable signals into space (before calamity strikes or something else happens) that we're expecting to be able to find.

Now, let's look at the history of signal-radiating life on our own planet. Using the most common understanding of the history of technologically-evolved life on this planet (because, who knows, maybe modern society isn't even as unique as our common understanding suggests), this planet has been leaking detectable signs of technological life for a little over 100 years. It's really only in the second half of that 100 years that the broadcasts were at both high-power and happening from significant portions of the planet's surface. It's also really only been in the second half of that 100 years that we've been listening for similar types of signs of life from other planets. In other words, we've really only been listening for 50-60 years.

What am I driving at? Even if, somehow, that planet 50 light years from ours evolved to the point of broadcasting and/or listening, there simply not a heck of a lot of temporal-overlap to when we would have had the opportunity to detect it or they ours. At minimum - and that's assuming that, as technologies advance, broadcasts within the spectrum we're listening in don't tend to disappear over time (e.g., broadcast methods are changed to other parts of the spectrum or using techniques that don't leak) - emanations from that planet 50 light-years from ours would have had to have started at or before we started listening (to account for the 50 years' communication-time/distance). If emanation of the sought-for signals started and ceased more than 50 years before we started listening - either due to technological changes or hitting the Great Filter - then that planet's signals would be past us and, likely, no longer detectable.

My point? To me, the apparent silence doesn't automatically indicate to me that we're unique - other than perhaps temporally. It doesn't even necessarily imply that there is even a Great Filter working against us discovering other life or even waiting ahead for us. By extension, such a lack of provable uniqueness doesn't indicate to me that we must be unique because of God.

In general, I'm both open to possibilities yet still a pretty skeptical person. Generally, I want evidence, one way or the other, to prove a given position before I'll buy in. To me, absence of evidence is not even remotely the same as evidence of absence.

Which, by extension means that, while I'm skeptical of the divine, I also don't rule it out.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Ninety Minutes of Customer Service Hell

Tangents and rage to follow...

See this?

This is the excerpt from my Google Voice call log that shows the length of my phone call with Verizon FIOS's customer support.

In general, I've had very little in the way of problems with any of my various Verizon services. ...Which is a good thing, because dealing with telcos' customer service departments is never anything less than a frustrating trial. To be fair, unlike my recent run-in with Sprint (on my mother's behalf), I came away from things mostly satisfied (or, at least as satisfied as one can be having had to call customer support in the first place).

At any rate, the long, bloody story.

I'm a convenience fan. Thus, I use things like electronic billing. I've had my Verizon bill and other utilities on automatic payment plans for years, now. To most of my billers' respective credits, such arrangements have been mostly without incident. That came to a crashing end, today.

I'd gotten email notification from Verizon that my auto-pay was due to be processed within the next 48 hours. I limit my exposure to auto-pay problems by having a special eBill checking account linked from my main checking account. Each month, as my direct deposits come in, a budgeted amount is transferred from my incoming checking account and distributed to my bill-paying account, my investment account, my "rainy-day" account and my "playtime" account. That auto-pay warning email is handy, because it allows me to be 100% sure that my bill-paying account has sufficient funds to cover any pending direct-pay arrangements.

When I looked at today's notification, the number looked higher than I was expecting. So, I logged into my Verizon account to see what was up. Perusing my bill, "Oh: my promotional-discount for upgrading my Internet to the 50/50 plan has expired." ...but then I noticed a $0 line-item for a service that I'd thought I'd canceled previously.

Then I noticed that my prior month's bill was $90 more than I expected. Given the $0 line item, I got a sinking feeling in my stomach. So, I clicked on the "detailed bill" for the prior month. "MOTHERFUCKER!" There, on my bill was a $90 auto-renewal charge for the "canceled" service ...number 2 of 2 (really amusing that the three prior years' versions of the package were billed in four installments).

I'd managed to not notice the out-sized bills because there was always enough in my bill-pay accounts to cover things. Granted, the slack-balance was lower than expected, but not precipitously so. At any rate, it was a service that I'd previously tried three different ways to cancel:

  • You see, last winter, I'd had some glitches with my NHL Center Ice option. The tech support guy I spoke to was able to resolve the technical problem. However, after a couple of years of NHL Center Ice, and recent acquisitions of suitable mobile devices, I was looking for alternatives. So, while I was on the call with the tech support guy, I'd asked, "can you ensure that my NHL Center Ice doesn't auto-renew after this season." He'd informed me that he'd be able to put the note on my account and that it should not renew come the 2014/2015 season. Thus, I assumed I would not see further NHL Center Ice line-items on my bill.
  • Come May time-frame of this year, I was doing one of my periodic reviews of my accounts. "Huh... There's still an NHL Center Ice line-item on this account. It's a $0 thing - maybe it's a leftover from the just-past season". Still, I called in to verify that the auto-renewal was, indeed, set to be canceled. The person I spoke to verified that such was the case. Dunno why, but this made me think "ok, yeah: that will not renew itself this fall" and went on my merry way.
  • Around the end of September/beginning of October, I opted to pull the trigger on getting an NHL GameCenter Live subscription. It was slightly cheaper than NHL Center Ice, and it let me watch hockey games via my XBone, my Rokus (awesome when visiting my mom since I could still see hockey using her Roku), my cell phones, my laptops and my notepads. With NHL Center Ice, I'd always been stuck only able to watch from home (yeah, I coulda done the SlingBox thing, but that was more effort than I wanted to deal with). With the new NHL online service, I noticed I was having some issues with streaming-quality/stability. I figured, "upgrade to a higher speed-tier - that'll fix it". So, I logged into my Verizon account to do the online upgrade. As Iwas reviewing the account prior to upgrading, I noticed another $0 charge for NHL Center Ice. "Ok... well, there's a button here for letting me alter my services: I'll just use that to delete this thing." I ran through that process, but, by this point (finally), I'm suspect of the damned package actually deleting. Before I committed to the cost of upgrading my Internet speed, I opted to use the web-chat tool to speak to a Verizon representative. I pointed out my continued problem with the persistent NHL Center Ice subscription. I asked if she could ensure that it got deleted. She verified that, yes, it was set to be deleted. I hit finish on the upgrade-transaction, thinking that I was now good to make the switch from NHL Center Ice to NHL GameCenter Live.

Obviously, that last thought was in error. So, I girded myself to deal with phone support. I hit the "call me" button on my Verizon accounts page. A few seconds later, my phone rang.

I navigated the call tree, selecting the "billing questions" options. I got connected to a CSR, and laid out my problem to her. She informs me, Oh, this department only handles payments not billing issues or credits. I think to myself, "Okaaay... Of course the billing questions option wouldn't allow me to actually do anything about a billing problem". But, "whatevs", right? She tells me she'll need to transfer me to the department that handles such issues.

About a minute later, another woman in another department picks up. We do the dance of "what's your phone number" so she can do an account lookup. I inform her, "I don't have a phone number associated with my account: I don't have a Verizon landline and every time I've tried to get my cell number (actually my GV number since 2009) associated to my account, my account's phone association fails to update". This isn't super surprising, given that whenever I've tried to use the web-tool to update my profile, it tells me my GV number is not a valid phone number. Fuckers.

I'd always assumed, however, that the CSRs had a different access method to the account records and could force the number into the appropriate place. Given that the number always seems to fall off my account, I'm assuming that Verizon's accounts system has some kind of de-linter that looks at profiles and prunes out any "bad" data. Too bad that de-linter is as broken as their web UI's number-validator. Probably the same code segments.

 So, I tell her, "I can give you the account number to look-up, directly". She insists that she has to look up by phone number. So, I give her my GV number - along with the admonition that it probably won't work. As expected, she tells me that she can't find an account with that phone number. Shocking, I know. She prompts me for other information so she can find my account. Apparently, they have a half dozen or so options to find an account, but giving them the actual account-number is not a valid option.

Ultimately, she finds my account. She then asks me what my problem is. I tell her the long story of the ghosts of NHL Center Ice plaguing me. I ask her to remove the plan from my account and reverse the charges. She tells me that the plan has been removed from my account. To which I reply, "...and the charges reversed, correct?"

She replies that she can't refund me the charges.

I ask her if she's serious. I point out to her that, what she's telling me, is that Verizon has siphoned $180 out of my account for a service that I didn't want and haven't used, and, are now going to make it so that I can't watch the channels I've already paid for.

She tells me she can re-activate the plan and that I can get the auto-renewal canceled at the end of the season. I want to scream at her, "are you fucking crazy? Have you not heard one fucking word of my description of how failfuckingtastic canceling auto-renewal has proven to be?" Knowing that this is unlikely to prove fruitful, I only respond by reiterating the prior travails I'd gone through. She informs me she only has record of the first service call and that she can't help me any further other than the options given.

I fight back the urge to completely lose my shit (yes, it's possible to "even", even in the face of borderline Kafkaesque "customer service"). I ask her to connect me to her supervisor.

She responds by telling me that the wait for a supervisor will be at least thirty minutes. I respond "whatever", because, at this point, I'm committed to riding this hell-train to the end of the line.

Long-silence. Seriously - it was a good three minutes before I hear her ask "do you want to wait for the supervisor?" She had seriously been sitting there, waiting silently - not understanding my "whatever" to mean "yes, connect me, I'll wait".  So, I had to explicitly state, "yes, put me on hold for a supervisor"

(Commence crappy hold music...)

(...Continue with atrocious hold music)

Twenty minutes later, the original CSR breaks into the hold music. I'm thinking, "wait, did I seriously just wait another twenty while she waits to put me into the supervisors' hold queue???" Fortunately, she was breaking in to tell me that I was next up in the queue for a supervisor.

Huh... It was actually going to be a warm-handoff. That's a good sign, right?

Eventually, a new voice comes on the line, identifying herself as the supervisor. She asks me for my account info. We go through the "there's no phone number associated with the account" dance. I'd be apoplectic, at this point, but I've worked for the companies that became Verizon and otherwise had to deal with telcos, in a professional capacity, to know that only calls get transferred, not support session or account information data. So, I just shuffle morosely through the steps.

She opens my account. I walk her through the sequence of events, noting that the first CSR had indicated a lack of records on Verizon's side that supported my case. But, I was able to point to the fact that I'd upgraded my account to support my position that I had previously made requests to cancel the NHL Center Ice service. Still, she had no record of the chat session. Apparently, with Verizon's disjoint information systems, just because you're talking to someone using their web-chat tool doesn't mean your account will reflect it. Fortunately, because of the January customer support call, it had established that I'd previously communicated with them. And, even though the tech support guy hadn't actually noted the cancellation request (he probably had, but, given Verizon's crappy inter-department data-transfer, the note probably got dropped in the transfer from one Verizon IT pond to another), it, combined withe the timing of the upgrade, was enough for her to justify issuing me the credit for the service.

So, 81 minutes of phone-hell later, I appear to have finally gotten the service canceled and the charges reversed. Still, I should probably log in, next week, and verify both things.

The worst part of all this? While there is an alternative to FiOS, that "alternative" is to Cox. I could probably link-out to the various Cox customer service horror stories that actually made the evening news, but Cox's CS issues are well known enough to make that redundant. At any rate, assuming the service is actually canceled - and stays canceled - and the charges do end up reversed, I don't currently have to consider dancing with the Cox-monster.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Uber vs. Lyft: A Customer-Based Review

So, finally got a chance to give Lyft a try, tonight. Given the various scumminess that Uber has displayed, this year, really didn't want to have to do business with them, any more.

I gotta say that, from a customer experience side of thing, Uber is definitely the more polished offering. The phone app is a much more polished design. The dispatch process is transparent and the arrival estimates accurate. Lyft doesn't even seem to offer the capability to get a fare estimate. If you want to contact customer service, all I can say is "good luck with that".

Overall, as a passenger, the service felt like it was designed more around the drivers' needs than the passengers'. I may give them another try, or I may try to see if one of the local taxi services has upped their game in the face of competition from Uber - and now Lyft.

I really don't want to go back to Uber. But, right now, they're definitely the best from a customer-experience standpoint.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

The Sublime Frustration of Convergence

I occasionally get cranky about converged communications channels - thing like merging Email and SMS or merging SMS and IM. For starters, I don't like how it tends to blur the "appropriate forms of address" lines for a given communications medium. While "RU ther" is almost OK in an SMS, it's less so in an IM and pretty much not tolerable in an Email. The other thing is, convergence means too many things jangling and, when there's errors, it's even worse.

Three times, today, I had convergence-related issues:
  • Buddy calls me to thank me for his Christmas present. I, first, get an inbound call-notification on my laptop's GV/Hangouts browser-plugin. I answer on my cellphone as soon as it rings (hate trying to voice-chat via my laptop - also, see not about "too many things jangling") Just as I'm picking up the call on my cell, the VOIP line starts ringing ...and then continues to ring and ring while I'm starting my conversation on the cell. Wife comes up to find out why the hell the landline's ringing off the hook. I tell her "GV's being a butt". I'd yet to try to deal with the VOIP line as I'd noticed my cell's battery was down (apparently, I'd not snugly seated the charging plug, previously) and was tied to the wall by the (now seated) charging-cable. So she does us both a solid by tracking down a VOIP handset and terminating the errant ring-through.
  • Boss tries to arrange an after-hours video call. "After hours" is about the only time everyone on my scattered team is available to talk since our "scattered" is across time-zones and, even those of us in the same time-zone are frequently working places where we can't do phone-calls (let alone video chats). His initial invitation to everyone had apparently gone awry, so he SMS'es me to ask if I'm available. I SMS back to affirm that I am. He states that he'll send out an invite to the video chat. The scheduled time for the call to start passes and still no email-invite. I assume it's gone into the Ether, so I SMS him again to ask what's up. He "dials" me into the video conference. This time, my cell rings before my browser starts jangling. I pick up on the cell and I'm in the video call. The cell isn't really stable for being on camera, so I'm a touch put out that what I'd *thought* was my cell ringing for a call was actually ringing for a video chat. My annoyance is subsequently eased when the invitation email finally arrives and I'm able to switch over to my laptop for the video-conference.
  • While the video-call is going on, my messaging widget pops up a long-assed text message. It was from the customer-lead for one of the projects I work on. I reply with an SMS - failing to notice that the text message was actually a transcription delivered via the text messaging component of the messaging widget. Worse, he'd called from a land-line rather than his cell, so my SMS gets delivered to the Ether.

Actually, three and a half times...

While working on one of my projects, I encounter a mis-documented security-fix. I go to call one of my co-workers about it. Both he and I have ZRTP widgets on our cellphones and our phones each "know" that the other's phone is ZRTP-capable. When I got to hit the call button, my phone helpfully asks, "do you want this to be an encrypted call". I think, "sure - it's about a security-related documentation-bug, so why not do the call encrypted". His phone rings and rings with no answer. It occurs to me that the ZRTP widget actually doesn't dial to his VMail-enabled "number". So, I hang up, re-start the call and select "no" when asked if I want to encrypt the call. Eventually, the call rings through to his voicemail (DAMMIT). I leave a message for him to call me back.

An hour or so later, he IMs me to tell me that he got the call but the voicemail was garbled. Irony: the encrypted VOIP calls frequently have better sound-quality than the PSTN calls do.

Just convergence-annoyance all over the damned place, today.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Will You Still Love Me When I'm 64?

The thought of getting old - turning into an old man - has never really held much appeal to me. The only saving grace to the entire prospect was that I could reach that "don't mind his outrageous statements. H e's old: he grew up in a different time and just doesn't know any better" point in life. Problem is, it occurred to me, today, that part of the reason people say that now is that the whole "PC"/self-censoring thing didn't exist in the first half of the 20th century. During my "peak" years, that shit is/was an everyday reality.

Will people 40+ years my junior still be saying things like that to excuse my outrageous statements? Will it be excusable to stand out on my front lawn in a tatty robe and slippers, yelling at those damned kids to get off my lawn?

The genesis of this whole train of thought was something I saw on my drive home from work. I was at a different office, today. This one's in DC. I haven't worked there in months. At any rate, the Waze-directed route home took me down I295 past National Harbor. As I was crossing the Woodrow Wilson Bridge back into Northern Virginia, I passed one of National Harbor's shuttle vans. Now, if you're not from the DC area or have never had cause to know about National Harbor, you'd need to know that the full name of one of the facilities there - the one to which this van belonged - is "Gaylord National Harbor".

Now, when I was a kid, it was a pre-PC time. Whereas kids today might refer to things as "gay", something you might have heard when I was a kid - if you did something stupid - was something like "way to go, gaylord". Naturally seeing that van, I was transported back in time and my inner 12 year old laughed - and my adult side laughed at the absurdity of the humor my inner 12 year old found in such a mindless epithet. And then I grew sad that I might never reach an age where I can simply revel in stupidity.

Friday, January 31, 2014

A Foray Into "The Internet of 'Things'"

Last year, an online acquaintance had pointed me to what looked to be a nifty bit of gadgetry. It was an IP-enabled LED lightbulb that you could control from your iOS or Androd mobile device. Not only was it advertised to be able to remotely power it on and off, you could dim it and even change the bulb's output color.

I followed the link that was posted and it took me to a Kickstarter page. When you go to the page, what's shown is an LED bulb that looks like it packs all this functionality into a standard lightbulb's form-factor:

So, on March 3rd of 2013, I placed an order for four of them. Total cost: $300 plus shipping fees. Original expected arrival date was August of 2013. Halfway through August, get an email saying that there's been a manufacturing delay, but it should only be a couple months. Eventually, in December, get notification that they should be arriving in Q1 of 2014. Today they finally arrived.

I was quite chuffed to open the box and start using my new bulbs. I read the installation manual (no small feat as, apparently, the folks at Lifx really like small print - I'd say the user booklet is probably printed in the 6-8pt range). I download the Android app to my notepad (odd, it's got a really low rating on the Google Play Store). I install the first bulb, power it on, and follow the instructions to set up my bulb. Gets to step 5 and the app tells me "can't talk to the device".

I flip through the manual to find the troubleshooting section. I go through the factory reset steps and retry the setup. I try using two different WiFi routers and two different Android devices. Each  (of literally a dozen) attempt ends in the same failure.

So, I send an email to their support address describing my problem. We go back and forth for a while, with them telling me "the Android app is mostly broken" and asking me "can you use an iOS device to set it up: that App is much more functional". Seriously? I reply back, "no, I can't: I don't have any iOS devices". They assure me that a replacement app is in the works and it will fix all the issues ...but it's "just a couple weeks" from being ready for release. Pardon my concern about what "a couple weeks" means from a company that was a couple quarters late in delivering this PoS.

Speaking of dubious descriptions... See that picture above? Yeah. What came looks nothing like that. To be fair, they'd sent pictures of the updated design. The updated design isn't horrible in the pictures, but when you unbox it? Yeah, it's nowhere near as small as the image above. It won't fit in any of my light fixtures and it's mad-heavy.

I've got other LED bulbs, so I know they tend to be on the heavy side. But my other bulbs are positively frail compared to these beasts. Each socket I managed to fit the bulbs into, the socket is being visibly torsioned from the weight of the bulb.

Also, the default color? Suuuuuuuuucks. My other LEDs provide much better quality of light - better color, less harsh projection and less-stark shadowing. Those other bulbs also cost half as much.

At any rate, at this point, I'm thoroughly disillusioned. I ask, "how do I get a refund for these since they're not functioning as advertised". Their helpful response? They inform me that I'll have to ship them back to Australia - on my dime - before they'll credit back the $300 I've wasted on these.




A product whose shoddiness is only exceeded by the shoddiness of their customer support. Oh well, at least looking at the threads on their FaceBook page, I'm not alone in this flooding boat.

Lifx: from your CEO on down, everyone in your organization should be ashamed of this disgraceful product-release. A lot of your buyers are people that like to support small/new businesses - it's why we "sponsor" stuff on sites like KickStarter in the first place. You spat all over that. I dunno about others, but it really makes me question whether I should pony-up on any other similar products.

Philips has a better product for a more reasonable price. And, having dealt with them on other support issues, they actually have a worthwhile customer service organization.