The Wrong Question

There’s a new survey. Well, okay, there’s always a new survey about something. The one I’m talking about is from Cox Automotive, and purports to look at attitudes toward autonomous cars. More precisely, it looks at how attitudes have changed in the past two years.

Unsurprisingly, it shows that fewer people say they’d be interested in buying a fully autonomous car, one that has no option for manual control.

Cox attributes the decline to the publicity around the Uber’s testing and the death of a pedestrian earlier this year. And they’re probably correct in that assessment.

Also unsurprisingly, while three-quarters of the survey respondents say autonomous cars need real world testing, less than half would be willing to have the testing done where they live. Not quite NIMBYism, but certainly NOMS (Not On My Street).

Because people are poor at gauging risk. From what I can tell, even at their current state of development, autonomous cars are safer than manually-driven ones on a mile-for-mile basis. But self-driving vehicles are regarded with suspicion because they’re unfamiliar.

But I digress.

What I wanted to point out here is that Cox is asking the wrong question. Because makers of autonomous cars (or would-be makers) aren’t trying to sell them to the general public.

Why not? Because people aren’t buying cars as often as they used to. Twenty years ago, the average American bought a new car every three or four years. Ten years ago, it was every four or five years. Today, the average is closer to seven years.

Serving that market isn’t a sustainable model for an automaker.

Lest you think I’m guessing about that, consider the way fully self-driving cars have been pitched to consumers. The ads and opinion pieces have been heavy on the vision of your car dropping you off at work in the morning, then coming back to pick you up at the end of the day. Summoned, of course, by an app on your phone.

Where exactly is that car going after you get out?

To take your spouse to work? Maybe–but again, encouraging consumers to share a car isn’t part of automakers’ business plan.

To park? Unlikely. It’s already impossible to find a parking space near any large business, and if your car parks at a distance, it’s going to be tough for it to pick you up in a timely fashion.

Maybe it’ll go home. But do you want to pay for gas or electricity, not to mention depreciation, from an extra round trip every single day? Probably not.

No, what the manufacturers want is for you to send your autonomous car off to drive other people around. Remember, Uber is a prime mover in autonomous car development. The idea of millions of cars–that other people buy and maintain–working for them without obnoxious drivers who demand to be treated as employees must be causing enough salivation in upper management to fill a couple of Olympic-sized swimming pools.

And if you want your car to work for you while you’re doing other things, it’ll need to be up to the standards Uber (or GM, or whoever runs the service) sets. If they say it can’t be any older than last year’s model, you’re going to buy a new car every other year. And then pay for gas and maintenance out of whatever rental fee the company decides to pay you.

Or maybe they won’t bother with selling to consumers at all. Uber Motors can make the cars and sell them at a loss to Uber Rideshare. That puts UM in a great tax position. Meanwhile, UR gets tax breaks for capital investment while simultaneously writing off the cost of maintenance and depreciation. And UR also can charge an arm and a leg for ride service because fewer and fewer consumers are buying cars. Why? Not only do they not want autonomous cars, but UM’s price to consumers is several times higher than what UR pays.

And, lest you forget, there’s only so much reduction in pollution that can be attained by increasing the number of non-polluting vehicles sold. That means, sooner or later, clean air laws will mandate older, lower mileage vehicles must be removed from the road (or cost prohibitive amounts to register). Which means fewer people will be able to afford the upfront cost to buy a new car.

If public transportation isn’t an option–and it’s not for many people–UR will be waiting to collect your money.

So it really doesn’t matter whether you want to buy a self-driving car. You’re probably not going to. But you will be riding in one.

Lucky you!

Dropping the Ball

A quick lesson in how not to communicate with your customers.

I’m surprised to realize I’ve never done a blog post about Dropbox.

Since I work on three different computers (desktop, laptop, and tablet), I need to be sure I have the latest version of all of my files on each. Dropbox makes it mindlessly easy. Install the software on each machine, and once past the initial download, it all Just Works. Make a change on one machine, and it gets copied to the others. No network? No problem. As soon as you’re back on line, all the changes get shared around. And if disaster strikes (this is earthquake–and wildfire–country) Dropbox works as an off-site backup too.

It was great when Dad and I were writing The RagTime Traveler, too. Dropbox lets you share specific folders and files with other users. We shared a working folder, and everything he wrote, I got within seconds and visa-versa. No more emailing files back and forth, making changes and then discovering we’d edited the wrong version.

And, best of all, Dropbox supports Linux. The only one of the big names to do so. (Digression: it still seems odd that there’s no Linux client for Google Drive, despite Google’s use of Linux throughout the company, and early promises that one would be coming “soon”. It’s not like Google never puts money into economically unsupportable projects.)

Granted, the support has been somewhat half-hearted. Many system configurations were officially unsupported. But for the most part, they worked. They still do. But.

Here’s where we come to the “How Not To” part of the discussion.

Apparently, Dropbox has had a change of heart. On Friday, I got a warning message from Dropbox on my desktop machine (the Linux one). “Dropbox will stop syncing in November.” No explanation, no specific date, no web link for further information. Also no similar message on the laptop or tablet.

Naturally, I went online. Nothing on Dropbox’s website. So I sent a message to their Twitter support address*. That’s the one that promises “quick replies”. Four days later, nothing. Not even crickets.

* Twitter’s got to be good for something, right?

So I looked further. Used my awesome Google skills, well-trained by years of digging for odd bits of information to surprise and delight readers. (Ahem. Sorry.) Anyway, it turns out I’m not the only one who got the message. I know, what a surprise, huh? There’s a long thread on Dropbox’s support forum. Long, because of Dropbox’s response to the initial question.

Okay, I need to digress again. If you know what a file system is, you can skip the next couple of paragraphs.

Greatly oversimplified, a file system is the way your operating system lays out your data on a disk. Could be a hard drive, a floppy (if you’ve got a really old computer), thumb drive, whatever. There’s more than just raw data, of course. There are indexes to allow the computer to find the files, and there’s provision for some information about the files. For example, every file system keeps track of when files were created and/or changed. On systems that support multiple users–and yes, that includes Windows–the file system will also track who owns which files.

Every operating system supports multiple file systems. Windows, for example, mostly uses NTFS, but it also supports the older FAT file system and a recent variant, exFAT. Different file systems work best under different conditions–and of course every OS manufacturer wants their own FS to work best with their OS. So file systems proliferate.

End of digression. Let’s move on.

Dropbox’s official response to the user who asked about the warning message was to sacrifice Jay. Jay is a “Community Moderator,” someone who helps keep Dropbox’s support forum on track. Jay was given the delightful job of telling the world that as of November 7, the company is going to disable their own product on non-supported file systems.

On Windows, that means NTFS only. Which is actually the status quo; you haven’t been able to use Dropbox for Windows on anything but NTFS for years. Two file systems, HFS+ and APFS, are supported on Macs. Since those are Apple’s own file systems, and probably 99% of Macs use one or the other, again, it’s no big deal.

But then we come to Linux, where exactly one file system is supported: Ext4. And that’s a big problem for Linux users. Because Linux users are long-accustomed to tweaking their systems to maximize performance. And so there are many, many supported file systems on Linux. At least two of which are arguably more popular than Dropbox’s choice.

Even if a Linux user is running Ext4, if they’ve turned on the file system’s encryption functionality, Dropbox won’t sync it after November 6.

Having delivered this bombshell–that Dropbox is not only throwing Linux users off their system, but forcing them to decrypt their computers if they want to stay–Jay disappeared.

There has still been no official word from Dropbox about the reason for the change (the technical explanation Jay gave in his message is complete nonsense, leading many to believe it’s a cover for the first step in dropping Linux support entirely). The support site has been quietly updated with the same word Jay gave, complete with the same nonsensical reason.

Now, you may be asking why it matters. After all, Linux users are a small fraction of computer users. Why should Dropbox support them.

And to some extent that’s true. Dropbox doesn’t have to support Linux. But changing the status quo is risky. Linux users are, for the most part, more technically oriented than the average computer user. They’re often the people who keep corporate computers running. And, as the comments on the support thread show, many of them were instrumental in their companies’ decision to go with Dropbox as their cloud storage provider.

By changing from a “use at your own risk” approach to “do it our way or beat it” without an announcement and with no willingness to engage the community, Dropbox has changed all of those promoter-users into ex-customers. Telling those who might otherwise stick it out that they can’t encrypt their computers (and let us not forget that many companies require all laptops to be encrypted) ups the pain.

Losing one Linux user’s ten bucks a month won’t hurt Dropbox. Losing his employer’s two thousand dollars a month (assuming one hundred corporate users) will hurt, especially when multiplied by a few hundred companies.

One has to wonder about the timing of this action as well. Thursday, the day the Dropbox software started warning users about the shutdown, is also the day Chief Operating Officer Dennis Woodside announced he was stepping down, effective September 4.

That announcement cost Dropbox ten percent of its stock value.

An interesting coincidence, no?

Has Dropbox learned anything from the furor they’re facing in the press? Say, to engage their customers and get buy in before making significant changes?

Don’t make me laugh.

An Extra Large Oreo

I’ve been using my Pixel 2 XL for a couple of weeks now, so it’s probably time to throw out a few thoughts.

First, now that I’ve seen the specs on the thoroughly-leaked Pixel 3, I’m less bothered about not being able to consider it as my upgrade option. That might change if there really is a low-end version in the works, but for now, I’m happy.

Also, all of these comments are based on the phone running Android Oreo. Pie is downloading as I type these words, so I’ll save my thoughts on the upgraded experience for another day.

My immediate reaction after unboxing the phone was “Holy cow, this thing is huge!” But it doesn’t feel nearly as big in my hand. It’s not that much heavier than the 5X, and it’s very well balanced. I’ve yet to feel like it’s trying to slip out of my hand. It is a bit of a stretch to hold it at the balance point and still get a finger on the fingerprint reader, but not a painful one.

There’s no reasonable way to operate it one-handed. I have fairly long fingers, but even so, my thumb can only reach about half the screen. I’ve always been a “hold it in one hand, operate it with the other” user, so I haven’t had to make any changes in my habits there. But if you’re a “do everything with one hand” sort, you’re going to need to change your habits.

And that’s just as well. One-handed operation encourages multitasking, and I’d really rather you weren’t using your phone while driving, waiting in lines, or anything else that requires you to pay attention to what’s going on around you.

The fingerprint reader doesn’t have the same problem the 5X did with false triggering when the phone is in the pouch. That was half the reason why I wound up putting the 5X in a hard-shell case. The other half was that the car holder I use hits the 5X “Volume Down” button; that’s also not a problem with the 2XL. So I may not bother with a case this time around.

Setting up the phone initially had a couple of hiccups. Recent Android versions assume you’re moving from an older device, and they really want to transfer your data and settings. Since I couldn’t do that, the 2XL sulked a little, primarily around the first Wi-Fi connection.

To be totally fair, though, since it made the first connection, it’s been rock solid on multiple Wi-Fi access points, much more so than the 5X ever was–and much faster on the same ones. Transferring large files to and from the phone run as much as two times faster.

That said, the transfer from Wi-Fi to cellular data seems to be a little slower. If I’m streaming audio (say, listening to a baseball game in the car) I get a break of as much as ten seconds before it gives up on the Wi-Fi signal. But, to be fair, the switch from cellular to Wi-Fi is nearly instantaneous.

Fast is definitely a recurring theme. Apps launch instantly, data refreshes in a snap. Some of that is because I had to make a clean start and I haven’t reinstalled many of the apps I almost never used. Fewer apps and not having two years of photos on the device* means I have about four times as much free storage space as before, which translates into a speed boost. Though, naturally, most of the increase is just down to the more powerful hardware.

* Of course, all the pictures and videos are still available through Google’s Photos app. If you don’t have your phone set to automatically back up all your pictures to the cloud, give it some serious thought. Aside from its everyday benefits, it makes the transition to a new phone easier.

The photos are much better. You can see the improvement in last Friday’s post, where Kaja and Kokoro are clearly visible, even though they were backlit. And the difference is even more striking in low light conditions. There’s much less blockiness and the colors are clearer, probably because the automatic white balance seems to work much better.

Focusing is faster, too, which means I can get the shot I’m after before the subject wanders off or tries to sniff the phone.

It’s not perfect. It’s very reluctant to use the flash when it’s set to automatic. But the HDR is improved enough that it almost doesn’t matter. Almost.

The battery life is fine. I’m reliably getting by charging the phone every other night. Granted, I probably use the phone less than Google’s target audience. If I was watching videos for a couple of hours a day, I might feel otherwise. That said, videos look great, and the audio is noticeably better than on the 5X.

Other complaints.

The Home screen has a lot of wasted space, especially vertically. There’s nearly a whole icon’s worth of unused space above and below the “At a Glance” display (currently showing only the date and weather). And I could fit in a whole additional row of icons without affecting usability if I could put them closer together. (To be fair, I’ve gotten spoiled by the default launcher/home screen on LineageOS, which I’m running on my Nexus 9. That lets the user change the icon size and spacing.)

I’m also not a fan of the much-ballyhooed “Active Edge” feature. That’s the one that makes the sides of the phone pressure-sensitive, so you can launch the Google Assistant by squeezing the phone. I lasted two days before I turned that off. I hold the phone by the edges. Every time I picked up the phone, the Assistant triggered. Decreasing the sensitivity didn’t help; if there’s a sweet spot between “too sensitive” and “doesn’t register at all,” I couldn’t find it.

No great loss. Holding the “Home” button or using the voice activation is plenty good enough for this neo-Luddite skeptic.

A minor annoyance: Much as I love the “always on” display when the phone is locked–and I do–I wish I could add more data to the display. The current battery percentage would be nice; I shouldn’t have to wake up the phone to check that. Baseball scores. Some people might like to have a stock ticker. You get the idea. I hear Android Pie adds the battery percentage. Maybe Quisp will include some kind of widget-like functionality that third-parties can tap.

Bottom line: If you need a new phone, you could do far, far worse than the Pixel 2 XL. But there’s nothing here so compelling that you should immediately abandon whatever you’re using now.

And now, I’m going to hit the “Reboot” button and see how I like Pie.

Pie

Google startled the tech world yesterday by releasing Android P. Many techies were unprepared for the news, not expecting the release to happen until the twentieth.

Naturally, the surprise didn’t stop anybody from playing the name game. Now that we know Android P, aka Android 9, is officially named “Pie,” the just-released OS is ancient history, and everyone is speculating about the name of next year’s release.

Let’s face it, there just aren’t a whole lot of foods beginning with “Q”–and most of those aren’t sweets by any stretch of the imagination. Quesadilla? Quiche? Quinoa? Goddess preserve us. Pun intended, because the most likely choice I’ve been able to come up with is Quince, which is frequently found (to the extent you can call it “frequent”) in jams, jellies, and preserves.

But you know, there is a dark horse candidate.

Quisp Cereal
(Image copyright Quaker Oats.)

It’s a sweet. No more so than any other sugared cereal, I suppose, but yeah, there’s a lot of sugar in those boxes. It wouldn’t be the first time Google has done a corporate tie-in for an Android release. And really, wouldn’t Android’s robot mascot look great with a propeller mounted on its head?

Android Robot
(Android Robot owned by Google, naturally.)

Come on, Google, make it happen.

If you think I’m pulling that idea out of my rear end, you’re partly right. But there is a possibility that Google is prepping us for a bit of MTV-generation nostalgia.

Consider: Why did they choose yesterday, August 6, to make the Android Pie release? 8/6 is hardly a date of significance to pie. But it starts to make more sense when you consider that news reports citing Google’s announcement started appearing around 9:00 (US PDT).

I can’t find the actual press announcement from Google, but… Allow reporters a bit of time to pull up their stories and add last-minute details. That would imply the release came out around 8:00. Might it have been 7:53:09? Just saying.
Counter-arguments that yesterday was three months after Google I/O will be cheerfully ignored. Secret conspiracies are much more fun. And besides, why do you think they chose the date they did for I/O?

Joking aside, there aren’t a whole lot of surprises in the release. Google revealed most of their plans at I/O back in May. And, of course, developers and the incurably brave have been using the public betas for the past three months.

Perhaps the biggest surprises are those of omission. Two big pieces of planned functionality–“Slices,” which will allow apps to export content to other apps and the “Digital Wellbeing” initiative, a set of features designed to make you put down your phone and interact with humans–aren’t included. Google says they’ll both be released “later” this year.

That’s a little disappointing. I was looking forward to seeing Digital Wellbeing in action; some of the announced bits of it sounded useful.

I guess I can spend the intervening time getting the hang of the new navigation. The changes to the Back button should be simple enough–either it’s there or it isn’t–but when it is, it should work more or less as it has in the past.

Doing away with the “Recent Apps” button will be tougher. I use that one a lot. Sure, I’ll eventually retrain my muscle memory to swipe up from the “Home” button and to swipe left/right through the apps instead of up/down. But the whole thing smacks of change for the sake of change.

Unless, of course, Android Quisp is going to introduce some startling new functionality behind a button located where “Recent Apps” used to be. In that case, getting the button out of the way now, in order to give sluggards like me a whole year to reprogram their brains, is an excellent idea.

I’ll undoubtedly have further thoughts on Android Pie once I get my hands on it. I’m still waiting for it to show up on my shiny new Pixel 2 XL. You’d think Google was being cautious with the rollout. It’s not like Android ever has unexpected bugs, right?

Losing Face

More proof, as if anybody needed it, that Facebook didn’t get where they are today–a dominant force on the Internet, with a bankroll large enough to slide them through public relations disasters that would kill any lesser company–by playing nice.

Not with its users, and certainly not with the outside world.

You’ve probably seen the recent news stories about their detection of several accounts, possibly linked to Russia, that Facebook believes were attempting to sow confusion and create conflict leading up to the November elections.

In brief, these accounts were promoting protests, specifically counter-protests against pro-Nazi–pardon me, Alt-Right–events.

My cynical side wonders whether Facebook would have taken action if the accounts in question had been promoting the original rally rather than the counter-protest, but since there’s no way to know, that’s something of an irrelevant point.

The bottom line here–and Facebook is, of course, focused directly on the bottom line–is they have to be seen to be doing something about Russian interference with American elections.

Not only have they closed the accounts in question, but they’ve taken the additional step of notifying people who expressed interest in the counter-protest that it might be a Russian operation.

Needless to say, this has not been a popular move with the event’s other organizers, who have had to spend the past couple of days proving to Facebook that they’re not fronts for Russian spies, while simultaneously reassuring people that the counter-protest is real.

Naturally, Facebook doesn’t see a problem. They’ve Taken Action! They’ve Caught Spies! They’ve Made Facebook Great Again!

And it’s not like the protest groups are major advertisers, paying Facebook large sums of money to promote their event.

Facebook’s other recent move is to make it harder for their users to see what’s happening outside of Facebook. Until yesterday, it was possible for bloggers to automatically link their blog posts on Facebook. No longer. (It’s not just blogs that are affected by this move, either. Auto-posting of tweets to Facebook won’t be possible anymore, nor will it cross-linking be possible from any other service.)

Sure, you can still manually link a post. Log into Facebook and copy/paste the relevant text or URL. Takes two minutes. Except, of course, if you’re a prolific tweeter, blogger, or what-have-you-er, those two minutes per post are going to add up quickly.

What really stings about this move, though, is that it only affects posting to Profiles, not to Pages.

Grossly oversimplified: Profiles are intended for users–consumers, in other words. Pages are intended for groups or businesses–or, as Facebook would prefer to call them, revenue generators.

Pages get less visibility than Profiles. Unless, of course, the owner of the Page pays Facebook to advertise it.

I did mention that Facebook’s eyes are on the bottom line, right?

So where does this leave me? I make no secret of the fact that I’m on Facebook–with a Profile, not a Page–purely because it’s considered to be a major part of an author’s platform. “How are people–readers!–going to find you if you’re not on Facebook?”

Right or wrong (and I’m well aware of the counter-examples, thanks), that’s the reality we live in right now. Nothing has changed in that regard since the Cambridge Analytica revelations. So leaving Facebook still isn’t an option.

If I want my posts to keep showing up on Facebook, I’ve really only got two choices: post manually, or convert my Profile into a Page (and then pay Facebook to promote it).

Converting wouldn’t stop them from selling my personal information to other advertisers, and I really hate the idea of paying them to sell my information. And I’m not crazy about having to post everything twice (and thank you, Twitter for not setting up a similar block).

This post will get a manual link. Future posts will too, at least for the time being–but I’m not about to link to the Friday cat posts at midnight. My loyal Facebook followers will have to wait until I get to my desk Friday morning.

And we’ll see how it goes. I will undoubtedly forget from time to time. No question that I’ll botch the copy/paste periodically. If the whole thing gets to be too big a hassle, I will give up on Facebook, regardless of the “necessity” of being there.

Because, no matter what Facebook thinks–or, more precisely, wants its users to think–Facebook isn’t the Internet.

The Inevitable

My humblest apologies for the lateness of this post. Sadly, my beloved smartphone passed away last night, and I’m in the throes of grief. Ah, Nexus 5X, we hardly knew you.

Well, okay, considering that I’d had the phone since April of 2016, I’d say I knew it pretty darn well. So did you all, for that matter, since 99% of the photos I post are taken with my phone. And I wasn’t spending (much) time weeping and wailing; I was trying to revive it.

The fatal disease in this case is the so-called “boot loop,” in which the device gets partway through booting, then starts over or shuts down–mine fell into the latter group. It’s a known hardware problem with the 5X. Apparently some component unsolders itself from its circuit board. And in retrospect, I probably should have seen this coming. The phone has been having increasing difficulty connecting to Wi-Fi for the past few months–which some websites suggest is a related issue–and the constant attempts to reconnect raise the phone’s temperature, which hastens the major component failure.

I have to give kudos to both Google and LG (the actual makers of the phone) for their handling of the situation. The Project Fi customer service representative had me do one simple test to confirm the problem, then told me that LG had extended warranty coverage to all devices that fail this way, so there would be no cost for a repair, not even shipping.

He then conferenced in an LG customer service representative and introduced us before dropping off the call. She was equally polite and efficient, confirming that the repair would be done under warranty and would take about two weeks. It took her longer to get my address into the computer than everything else combined*.

* To be fair, the address problem was not the rep’s fault, nor, really, was it LG’s. Blame the US Post Service. My zip code is shared between two cities. Companies that auto-populate the city based on the zip code using the official USPS database always get it wrong, and usually have to fight to override the default.

I’m currently waiting for LG to email me the FedEx shipping label; that should come today, I was told, but may take a little longer than usual because of the address override. Fine. What’s a day or so in a two-week process?

Because, really, two weeks without a phone? Inconceivable!

The Google rep suggested that if I have an old phone, I could temporarily activate it with Fi, but I’m not sure that’s feasible, since my previous phone was with Sprint, which didn’t use SIMs at the time. But I’ll try, because why not?

But I’m not counting on it working, so I’ve ordered a new phone. Yeah, I know. Bad timing: Google is widely expected to introduce the Pixel 3 series in October. But let’s face it, about 95% of my phone time is either listening to baseball games, sending email, or taking pictures of cats. And the Pixel 2 camera are still widely regarded as among the best phone cameras available. It’ll be a major upgrade over the 5X camera, certainly. And spreading the payments across two years makes it more or less affordable.

In the worst case scenario, if the Pixel 3 series renders the 2 series totally obsolete, well, I’ve got a phone that’s a major step up for what I do. By the time it’s paid off, I can trade it in for a Pixel 5 (which obsoleted the Pixel 4 that made the Pixel 3 look like trash).

If you believe Google’s estimate, the new phone could arrive as soon as tomorrow or as late as Monday. Four days is a hell of a lot easier to face than two weeks. With a bit of luck, next Friday’s cat post will feature photos taken with the new phone.

So why am I getting the phone repaired if I’m buying a new one? That Google rep again. He pointed out that the trade-in value of a working 5X is almost double that of a dead one and that I’ve got thirty days–four weeks, twice as long as the repair should require–to send in the old phone. Logical and helpful. Thank you, Google Support Guy!

Or, heck, I may keep it around as an emergency backup. Maggie has a 5X, after all. It probably won’t drop dead–it seems to be from a newer production run which may not have the same unsoldering issue–but keeping the old phone would provide a little peace of mind.

Rest in peace, Nexus 5X, secure in the knowledge that your resurrection is pending.

I’m Not Touching You

If you missed the alerts for the first six parts of this series, please check your spam folder… No, not really, but it is tempting.

Corporate over-communication is getting to be quite the fad. Consider these two examples, which occurred within a week.

We have a home alarm system. When it triggers, the alarm company first tries to contact us at our home phone number. If we don’t answer, they also try a cell phone, a mobile email address, and a text message. Only if all contacts fail do they pass the alert to the police or fire department. This is good–it only adds a couple of minutes to the response time, and it cuts down on false alerts, which can be very expensive.

But.

We had a false alarm recently. The trigger was a sensor falling off one of the doors. No harm, no foul; the system worked as intended: I spoke to the alarm company, the police didn’t come to the house, and I set up a service call to have the sensor remounted.

The false alarm happened on a Friday, in the evening. When I made the appointment for the service call, the representative first offered Saturday, “between noon and five”. Well, we had plans for Saturday afternoon, so that wouldn’t work, and we settled on Monday afternoon. A few minutes later, I got an email confirming the appointment.

That’s when everything went off the rails, thanks to the alarm company’s zealous need to stay in touch.

Over the next few minutes, I got two more identical emails. Probably a hiccup in their email system. At least, I hope so. I deleted the extras and went on with my day.

Saturday morning, a few minutes before eight, we were woken up by the phone. Caller ID said it was the alarm company. We hadn’t set the alarm when we went to bed–no sensor–so we knew it wasn’t a break-in alert. So we went back to sleep. Or tried to. Shortly after I pulled the covers over my eyes, my cell phone rang.

You guessed it. The alarm company, calling a number they’re only supposed to use for an alert.

“Hi, this is [name] with [company]. We have a technician in your area who can come fulfill your service request today between eight and noon.”

The conversation went downhill from there.

Note, by the way, that the window had changed from afternoon to morning. If morning was an option, shouldn’t the original representative I spoke to have offered it? But I digress.

And yes, the caller had left a message on our answering machine before calling my cell phone.

Saturday afternoon, I got an email urging me to upgrade the alarm system to their latest system which has an all-new app for iOS and Android. You all know my feelings about apps that let you arm and disarm alarm systems from anywhere. Trashed the email.

Sunday brought a reminder email about Monday’s service appointment.

Monday, a few minutes before noon, I got a phone call from the technician. “I’m on my way, I’ll be there in about fifteen minutes.” Hopefully he wasn’t actually on his way; I’d hate for him to risk getting into an accident because he was calling ahead while driving.

And, about two minutes after that, I got an email informing me that the tech was on his way. (Excuse me, I just checked: it says “on their way”. Kudos to the company for not making gender assumptions in their annoyingly redundant messages.)

So that’s four emails and three phone calls for one appointment. I was about one contact away from telling the tech to rip out the system, take it back to headquarters, and shove it up the rear end of the executive in charge of customer service.

Oddly, now that the appointment is over, there’s been complete silence. Not a single phone call or email begging me to take their customer satisfaction survey. Though it wouldn’t surprise me if one came in somewhere down the road; some companies seem to wait for months before sending those out, perhaps in the hope that you’ll forget just how horrible the service was.

Another example.

My doctor gave me a referral to a clinic I’ve never dealt with before*. When I called to make an appointment, I had my choice between two days away, two months away, or three months away. For obvious reasons, I took the first option, and set up the appointment for just over 49 hours in the future.

* This is for a minor, but annoying condition. Nothing life-threatening. No need to express concern, but thanks in advance.

One hour later, I got an automated phone call to confirm the appointment. No problem, that’s standard practice these days.

Then I got an email confirming the appointment again and including paperwork I was supposed to fill out and bring with me. Again, fine. I’d rather fill out the forms at home than on the Group W bench at the office.

This was accompanied by a separate email urging me to set up an account on their “patient portal”. This would, it said, allow me to send secure messages to my “care team” at any time; view my bills, test results, and appointment details; and schedule “visits”.

I ignored it. I don’t plan to be a regular client, thanks.

Then I got another email asking me to click a link to confirm my appointment. Didn’t I just do that on the phone? Oh, well. I clicked the link.

Then came another email, this one demanding that I set up the portal account and offering the ability to fill out forms online. Fine. If I can fill out this five page questionnaire online, it’ll be easier for everyone. I won’t have to carry it with me, and the doctor won’t have to read my handwriting.

I signed up. Noticed that my address was wrong*, so I fixed it and went looking for the form. Surprise! It’s not in the system.

* This is not uncommon. There are two cities sharing our zip code, so any business that uses the Post Office’s zip-to-city database gets it wrong.

Logged off in disgust, just in time to get two more emails. One informing me that my portal password had been changed and urging me to call the office if I hadn’t made the change. And one to “confirm the recent changes made to your profile”.

Mind you, I didn’t change the password, I set it up. But that’s a grammatical quibble. The profile change message, however, is more annoying. It doesn’t give any clue what has changed. I presume it’s regarding the address change. But since it doesn’t give any information, I can’t tell if it’s alerting me to the change I just made, to their system reverting the change because the city I entered doesn’t match their database, or some other change.

At this point, I’ve spent as much time dealing with the emails as I expect to spend at the appointment–and that’s still almost thirty hours away. Plenty of time for another half-dozen messages.

What gives the alarm company the ability to use contact information I gave them for one purpose for something else entirely? Is it really that hard for the clinic (or, more likely, their outsourced techies) to get their phone and email systems talking to each other and to merge portal notifications that happen within a short amount of time into a single contact?

[Shrug] You tell me: am I overly sensitive, or are these companies overly aggressive?

Either way, don’t expect anything to change. There’s no economic impetus. Emails are effectively free, after all, but it would cost money to reprogram the systems.

Cutting Loose

Let’s go over that cord-cutting thing.

Bottom line: I’m not sorry to have done it. I’m not considering going back to satellite or–looking even further back–cable.

As I said a couple of weeks ago, the big attraction was a lower bill. We’ve definitely got that, but there is some truth in the saying that you get what you pay for.

For one thing, we get fewer channels. Granted, we never watched the overwhelming majority of the ones we’ve lost. But there’s that little voice in the back of my head that says, “Now you’ll never know what you’re missing by not checking out The Polka Channel.”

That said, one of the beauties of the cable-free life is that, as far as I can tell, none of the services require a contract. You can add ’em, drop ’em, and change packages on a whim. So if I ever wake up in the middle of the night craving the “Polka ‘Round the Clock” show, all I have to do is sign up for a service that carries the channel–and then cancel when I discover that 96 straight hours of polka is as much as any person can endure.

Without having to cancel and reinstate the current service. Unlike the traditional model where you can’t easily have more than one TV provider*, in this wonderful new world, you don’t have to choose. Sign up with ’em all. Assuming you can afford it, of course.

* Of course, that statement just shows how ancient I am when it comes to the television marketplace. With modern sets having multiple inputs, you could have Dish, Comcast, and DIRECTV. Nobody does, mind you, but it’s easily possible, unlike back in the days before I started chasing the damn kids off my lawn.

Which brings us to that channel selection thing. Don’t believe the advertising about ala carte programming and freedom from pricy packages. You still can’t choose just the channels you want to watch.

Look, in my ideal TV world, I’d get Food Network, the local regional sports channels, the Seattle regional sports channels, and a handful of nationals like ESPN and MLB.

Not happening. The only difference between the offerings of Sling TV and its parent, Dish, is that Sling’s only got two packages. Dish has–last I checked–half a dozen packages, not counting the “customer retention” package they tried to sell me. Both also have an assortment of specialty add-on packages. The point is, you’re still picking packages.

And forget my dream. None of the streaming services carry all of the regional sports networks. Even if they did, I couldn’t get the Seattle channels in California, because the carriage agreements limit distribution based on the billing address of the credit card.

On the other hand, I’m no worse off than I was with satellite. I ignore the channels I don’t watch–and, since the packages are smaller, there are fewer to scroll past in the channel guide.

Maybe I’d be happier with a streaming service that specialized in sports. There are a couple, of course. I don’t want to pay for two services, but perhaps one of the sports services also has Food Network. If so, I could switch at any time. And switch back just as quickly if I don’t like what I get for the price.

Moving on.

Video quality is good. Better, in some cases than I got with the satellite, not as good in others. As you might expect, it depends on the quality of the Internet service*. That glitches occasionally (thanks, Comcast), but on the whole I’m satisfied.

* So we haven’t really cut the cord. Wireless Internet is a complete dream around here, with no line of sight to any radio towers.

There are quirks, though. On some channels, there’s often a couple of seconds where the audio track drops out right before a commercial break. This seems to be related to the carrier supplying the ads; the selection of ads on Food Network, for example, appear to be different than what we got with Dish, suggesting that Sling TV’s technology for inserting their advertisers’ messages isn’t quite up to snuff.

Some channels seem to be more prone to buffering issues than others. If I had to guess, I’d say that the culprits are running at a higher bitrate, and are more likely to trip over those network glitches. But it’s a guess.

Sling TV’s user interface has a few quirks as well. Most notably, selecting a specific show from the channel guide sometimes drops you back at the guide when the show ends. Sometimes. Other times you get to see the next show. Choosing the channel always keeps the programming running instead of reverting to the guide.

It’s the inconsistency that gets me. Who QAed this shit, anyway?

The other big quirk is that Sling TV restricts the number of simultaneous viewers according to which package you have. “Orange” channels can only be watched on one device at a time. Put ESPN on the bedroom TV, and that’s it. But “Blue” lets you watch on three devices at once. ESPN in the bedroom, Food Network in the tablet in the kitchen, and BBC America in the family room.

Oops. Except that ESPN isn’t in the Blue package. Better get both packages. Of course, now you’re paying twice for Food Network and BBC America.

What was that about freely choosing your viewing and no useless channels? Ahem.

Mind you, the simultaneous viewing limits don’t much affect us. We usually watch together, anyway. But in a larger family it might matter more. (There’s the reason we don’t teach the cats how to use the remote.)

Moving on.

One final note about the whole experience. To get streaming TV services on your actual television, you do need a player of some sort. A computer will work, but the experience of navigating a web browser using a wireless mouse from ten feet away is less than ideal.

Many DVD and Blu-ray players include apps for major streaming services. That might do it. For that matter, new “Smart TVs” have the same apps built in. But do you really want to buy a new TV just to cut the cord? And the apps on the disc players, IMNSHO, are uniformly slow, buggy, and awkward to use.

And speaking of awkward, if you’ve got a Chromecast, you can use that. Maybe it’s just me, but I find the experience of starting a program on my phone, restarting it on the TV, and then using the phone as a remote to be frustrating and counter-intuitive.

So if you’re cutting the cord, budget for a dedicated streaming device. Roku, Amazon Fire TV, Apple TV, or something of that sort.

We wound up going with the cheapest Roku stick. Getting it connected to our wi-fi was an experience I’d prefer not to repeat–there seems to be an incompatibility with our router–but now that they’re talking, everything’s good.

The Sling TV UI on Roku is more internally consistent and logical than the web interface, the Roku app is faster than the one on our Blu-ray player, and as an added bonus, the Roku app for MLB TV is cleaner and simpler than the iOS and Android apps.

Of course, there are a bunch of Roku channels we never watch…

SAST 11

Time for another Short Attention Span Theater. This one’s brought to you by the combined efforts of the local trees copulating furiously and the local felines all attempting to drape themselves across my body simultaneously. This is not a combination of events conducive to deep, restful sleep.

First up is your official notification that I’ll be taking two weeks’ vacation beginning Monday. There will be Friday posts continuing our current survey of toe beans. There will probably not, however, be any other posts. Enjoy the peace and quiet.


Let’s get the awkward item out of the way. If you’re sensitive to a certain four-letter expletive–the one beginning with “F”–I suggest you skip ahead to the next item.

Still here? Okay. This license plate and its handmade addendum were spotted in a mall parking lot.
24-1

I’ll note that the mall in question contains–in addition to a supermarket–a martial arts school, a musical instrument store, and several restaurants that actively court families as patrons. Not, in other words, a venue where most people would consider such language appropriate.

That said, I have to wonder if the owner of the car was the one who amended the license plate, or if it was done by someone who was annoyed by the owner.

The car didn’t have the dinged-up look one expects on a vehicle that frequently behaves rudely in traffic, so I doubt the sign was contributed by someone who’d been cut off entering the lot.

Perhaps it’s an attempt to foil license plate cameras? But those usually target the rear plate.

Or maybe the owner is just an asshole. If so, I’ll just note that there are any number of sites offering information about license plate owners. A quick search turned up several which claim to provide names, contact information, arrest history, and more for as little as three dollars a plate. Something to consider next time you feel the need to insult someone from the supposed safety of your four-wheeled fortress.


I spotted this in a recovery room after a minor medical procedure.
24-2

I have to say that the germ doesn’t look nearly evil enough, nor does it look sufficiently annoyed by the threat of handwashing. Maybe a few soap bubbles would help?

The real question, though, is how many people ask? Not just asking to be obnoxious, but because they’re seriously concerned that the person offering them a juice box might not have washed recently.


24-3What in God’s name are we teaching our kids?

That it’s appropriate to wear a mask at the dinner table? That plagues are equivalent to super heroes?

I won’t even get into how difficult it would be to eat with some of those masks on. But shouldn’t the manufacturers have asked themselves whether there was any value in masks so non-representational they need to have identifying labels?

Apparently I’m not the only one questioning these things. This was in the remaindered/closeout aisle at the local supermarket a few days after Passover.

Which raises another question: Should religious education really be left in the hands of a commercial enterprise?


And finally…
24-4What in God’s name are we teaching our kids?

That even multi-millionaire superheros have to get day jobs to live? That pole dancing is an aspirational career path*?

* No offense intended to those who choose pole dancing as a livelihood, whether or not they remove their clothing while dancing. But I suspect even those pursuing the option would admit that, in terms of long-term income potential and retirement savings, it’s down at the bottom of the list with working the counter at a fast food restaurant.

That one needs a fortune in technological wizardry to swing around a pole? Or is that point? Is there an epidemic of stripping on our nation’s playgrounds, and this is part of a discouragement campaign? If so, it’s a little bit better than cracking eggs in a frying pan.

Is it just me, or does anyone else think Bruce Wayne would be likely to earn more as a stripper than Batman? I mean, I’d find those boots, gloves, and utility belt a real turnoff.

Divine Wrath

It’s been a rough week for Seattle baseball fans.

It started with an ordinary aggravation: a rain-out, resulting in a doubleheader. Normally you take those in stride, but it came at an awkward time in the Ms’ schedule: a lot of travel and no off days, thanks to an early-season snow-out.

Then, the day after the doubleheader, Robinson Canó was hit on the hand by an errant pitch. Broken metacarpal bone, out for an estimated 6-8 weeks. A big hit to the team’s playoff hopes and overall morale.

Naturally, then, the Universe doubled down. Before fans even heard the specialist’s appraisal of Canó’s injury and expected recovery time, they found out it was largely irrelevant. MLB determined he’d taken a banned substance and suspended him for eighty games. Not only does that push his return into August, but it means he’ll be ineligible if the Ms’ manage to squeeze into the playoffs.

It’s especially vexing for the fans because of a lack of information. Canó and MLB say he took a diuretic which is on the banned list because it can be used to flush performance-enhancing drugs out of the system. Players don’t get banned for taking that medication; instead, there’s an independent investigation to determine the likelihood that it was taken to conceal PED use.

Canó denies there was any PED use, and that the drug was to control his high blood pressure–a legitimate use. MLB says there is evidence of PED use, but, for privacy reasons, will not discuss what the evidence is or what banned substances they believe he took.

Of course, the result is a persecution complex among Mariners fans, and the rise of conspiracy theories. My favorite says MLB is unhappy at losing the Cubs’ curse as a drawing card and publicity tool. As a result, the theory states, they’re taking steps to extend Seattle’s playoff drought–already the longest in all of the four major American sports–indefinitely. This, of course, ties in nicely with reports that Portland is in the running for an expansion team: how thrilling would it be to have a playoff race between the martyred Mariners and the Portland TBAs? One team trying to break their curse, the other trying to duplicate the success of the NHL’s Vegas franchise–now that’s drama (and ticket sales).

But I digress.

Picture those poor Seattle fans, already dealing with all that.

Tuesday–the same day Canó’s suspension was announced–Nelson Cruz, another key piece of the Mariners’ playoff hopes, was hit in the foot by a pitch.

A wave of fan suicides was forestalled when the team was able to give an update before the end of the game: no bones were broken, but Cruz will be out for several days, and a stint on the Disabled List is still a possibility.

You might think that was enough. But, no. Adding insult to the injuries, most of them couldn’t even watch Wednesday afternoon’s game. Not because of their work schedules, but because it was exclusive to Facebook, one of twenty-five such this season. No local TV, no MLB.TV. Closed your Facebook account in protest of the Cambridge Analytica? Too bad. Don’t want to sit in front of your computer for three hours? Sorry. Don’t have the Facebook app on your mobile device because you don’t want to give them access to your location and contacts? We weep great crocodile tears for you.

Ahem. Sorry.

How was the experience if you were willing to deal with Facebook?

Feh.

In fairness, they did provide a way to turn off the comments window and the stupid emoji scrolling on top of the video. And having the broadcast commercial-free was nice.

Other than that, though…

Even with Facebook comments off, we still got viewer questions and comments slapped onscreen and had to listen to the announcers read them and respond.

Instead of letting fans enjoy the lack of commercials by showing pitchers warming up, attendees singing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame”, and all the other enjoyable non-game elements of the live experience, we got historical moments only tangentially related to the current game and more inane viewer comments.

Let’s not forget the frequent use of split-screen, shrinking the actual game in favor of interviews with studio talking heads, players, and managers.

And, of course, several in-game reminders to buy MLB.TV and get access to “all out of market games”, conveniently not adding “except this one”.

Pardon me again.

So, yeah. Baseball on Facebook is better than no baseball–but that’s a given. If there were any alternative short of flying cross-country to watch the game in person, I’d recommend it.

Still, today is a new day. Mariners fans across the country are risking divine wrath by assuring each other that the worst must surely be over, and life will get better from here.

Game time is 7:10 Pacific, and it will be available through all the usual distribution channels. Surely nothing else can go wrong this week. Right?