A Small ReAIlity Check

Heaven forbid Microsoft should be left behind in the global rush to incorporate AI in everything we use.

At their developers’ conference, they announced a slew of AI-related “advances” we should prepare for in the coming months. Starting, of course, with Windows. “Windows Copilot” will be built into Windows, bringing an AI assistant to everything you do. Shades of Clippy!

I see you’re trying to plagiarize a school assignment from Wikipedia. Would you like me to rewrite it in your style?

Apparently it won’t be limited to Microsoft’s programs, either. It will watch what you do, learn how you typically use all the software on the computer, and offer to lend a hand. “Hey, it looks like you’re trimming your ex out of all your photos. I can help you with that!

I’m curious to see how it interacts with programs that have their own AI components. Adobe, for example, is adding generative AI to Photoshop. Just wait until Clippy 2.0Copilot starts issuing instructions to the AI. Imagine the feedback loops you’ll get as Copilot tries to fine-tune Photoshop’s efforts to match your tastes.

Microsoft is also following Google’s lead when it comes to identifying and tagging AI-generated content. Hopefully their standard will be interoperable with Google’s. We certainly don’t need tagging wars with Bing refusing to indicate that Google-tagged content is AI-created and visa versa.

Other news: Edge is about to get a way to group related tags together in “Workspaces”; once you build a workspace, Edge will generate a table of contents for the group, allowing you to easily jump to what you’re looking for. Handy, especially if you typically have a couple of dozen tabs open at a time, but not exactly groundbreaking: Chrome has had a similar feature for some time now.

Then there are the VR-related changes coming to everybody’s least favorite conferencing software, Teams. Don’t want to go audio-only in a meeting, but don’t want everyone seeing the soup stain on your shirt either? Have no fear: soon you’ll be able to use a 3D avatar to represent yourself as you want to appear–as long as you want to appear as a somewhat plasticized figure with limited facial expressions.

Wait, it gets even better*: if you and everyone else in your group wants, you can break out of the standard meeting grid of video boxes and meet in a virtual environment. Or least your avatars can. Does anyone see a good use for this in the business world? “Hey, let’s save a bunch of money by having a virtual Christmas party this year!” Might have been useful in 2020 or 2021, but it’s hardly going to fly today, what with employers doing their best to force everyone to come back to the office.

* For some values of “better”.

Could be fun in a “play” category. But then, haven’t we had similar, albeit less video-oriented, versions of this since the days of, say, MySpace?

Chalk up another victory for the forces of “gamify everything”.

Seriously, though, AI is unquestionably the flavor of the week. Given current tech industry trends, though, you have to figure that things will shake down soon enough. One or two big names will dominate the field (though whether those names include Google and Microsoft remains to be seen) and all the other companies currently betting big on AI will either fold or turn their attention to the next hot topic.

Random thought*: what I find most interesting about the current state of the AI “revolution” is the way all the companies working on it are going to great pains to disassociate themselves from NSFW applications of the technology.

* And please, let’s not get into the argument over whether that’s good, bad, or indifferent–or the same discussion about porn in general. Thank you.

Consider how many of the technological advances of the last fifty-plus years have been porn-based. VCRs and streaming media are merely the most obvious examples. And yet, today we have every major player explicitly and vociferously turning down porn-derived funding. I can’t help but wonder if that’s going to backfire. A small player who takes smut funding under a “we’re protecting real people from exploitation” tagline might just manage to make the next big breakthrough and take one of those “big name” slots.

You’re always horny on Friday night. I can deepfake a movie of you and [name] so you can get off without having to, y’know, actually do it.

AI AI AI/O 2023

As promised, a few thoughts about Google’s I/O announcements. But first, I want to offer congratulations to the Kraken.

Making the playoffs in their second season. Getting through the first round, pushing the second round to seven games–and coming within inches of forcing overtime in that seventh game. Nice job, gang, nice job. Not the outcome we all wanted, of course, but on the up-side, it gives something to build on next year. Thank you for the excitement.

Now, Google. AI is, of course, the flavor of the month, and Google has been binging on it. As many commentators have pointed out, “AI” appeared in every product announcement–nearly every sentence. Oddly, as someone (my apologies to them for forgetting who it was) the only product conspicuously missing is the one that would seem the natural spot for an AI touch-up: Google Assistant. I can’t imagine GA is going to vanish, but the lack of mention at I/O does make one wonder if its days as a separate product are limited.

Anyway, the first notable announcements were “Help Me Write” in Gmail (and later, in Google Docs) and the “Magic Editor” in the Camera app (and possibly as a standalone, presumably web-based, application).

Last year’s “Magic Eraser” worked well, within limits, so adding additional tools to help with photo editing seems the logical next step. Once you’ve selected an object, why limit yourself to deleting it? Move it around, change colors (the enhanced version of the “camouflage” function we already had), resize it–all logical. Sure, you’re rewriting history, but your memory does that anyway.

Similarly, given that Gmail already has suggested responses and autocorrect/as-you-write predictions, “Help Me Write” isn’t exactly a major cognitive stretch. Feed your AI a few words to suggest where you want to go, and watch it throw something together for you. How long before it starts arguing with you when you make changes to its “suggestions”? Think I’m kidding? Have you ever had your GPS get ticked off at you when you don’t follow its preferred route?

Those last couple of paragraphs sound pretty negative. In all seriousness, I think both tools could be useful, used correctly. But how many people are going to use them to improve what they create–and how many are going to hand the controls over to them entirely? (Case in point: if your phone is set to use one of the features to automatically pick the “best” picture–HDR, “Top Shot”, and so on–how often do you overrule it, or even look at the alternatives it rejected?)

Then there’s that “AI Prompts” feature for Google Docs. I can sort of see the utility of something that sees you’re stuck and pops up with a helpful suggestion or two. But it seems like that’s going to be much too easily abused. First it suggests something to get you unstuck, then it offers to write something to match the suggestion, and the next thing you know, it’s written your whole term paper/research article/novel. And, frankly, how is it going to know you’re stuck? Half the time when I’m not typing, it’s because I’m staring at the ceiling trying to find just the right word to come next and the other half I’ve gone to the bathroom/down to the kitchen for some tea/otherwise away from the computer. Either way, having that suggestion pop up isn’t likely to help much. Hopefully the feature can be turned off.

Naturally, AI is going to fuel Google’s traditional core business: search. It will, we’re told, allow for more complex searches that currently would require multiple searches and a manual combination of the results. The example we got was asking which vacation destination would be better for a family with kids and a dog; currently you would need to ask about the destinations independently, and figure out their individual kid- and dog-friendliness. It should also allow for chaining searches together implicitly. After you finish asking about the vacation destinations, if you then search for flights, Google might prefill the destination search based on the vacation query, and maybe even limit the search to airlines that allow pets and trim out the flights that require transfers. All automAtIcally.

That’s another one that sounds nice, raises concerns. How clear will it be what the source of the search results is. Will state or local tourist boards try to bias results to favor their regions as vacation destinations. (Yes, that’s a rhetorical question.) How long will Google retain search information? Some questions have a much longer shelf life than others. Will I have to tell the AI I don’t care about the trip I took last summer, now that it’s Christmas time? Or remind it about the search I did last year on alternative energy sources so it knows to prioritize anything new?

Then, of course, there’s that whole business about AI-generated art. Google says anything created by their AI will have metadata that reveals that fact. That’s nice, but metadata is easy to remove or alter. Heck, I do it on almost every picture I post to the blog: I strip out the GPS coordinates, the camera details, and pretty much everything else, and I add a copyright statement. Takes all of five seconds with a command line tool. If I can do that much, image what someone who knows what they’re doing could accomplish!

They’re also planning an “About This Image” feature that will, among other things, tell you where else a picture has appeared. That’s nice. But I have to say, I’ve never been very impressed with Google’s picture search functionality–TinEye works much better, in my opinion. And if Google’s

AI generated images will have metadata that clearly says so. So? Stripping metadata is easy. And the “About this image” bit to show where the image has appeared is iffy–especially if it relies on metadata. Google’s reverse image search has never worked especially well for me. And if the feature relies on metadata, well, see the previous paragraph.

Other items: Why does everyone assume I’m happy to let them use my Bluetooth, battery, and cellular data to help find other people’s lost keys? Just because Apple is doing it doesn’t mean Google has to. Yet, here we are.

Emoji wallpapers? Who the hell asked for this?

The cinematic wallpapers are less annoying, but does it really improve your life to have the picture on your desktop/home page appear in simulated 3D?

Then, of course, there’s the hardware. There weren’t any unleaked surprises, but just to touch the high and low points.

The Pixel 7a is, as best I can tell, essentially a Pixel 6 with a few upgrades–which does not include the camera, which is for many people a major selling point. Why would you get a 7a for roughly the same price as a 6?

The Pixel Tablet. Did we really need another device with an 11 inch screen? That’s my major complaint about iPads: the screen looks nice, but it sucks when it comes to portability. It won’t fit in a pocket, even a large jacket pocket. For that matter, tablets in the 10+ inch range weigh too darn much for kicking back in bed and vegging out. Google’s trying for the value-add by including the base with its (presumably) decent speakers, charger, and the tablet’s Hub mode. So now you have a device that can sit on a table and act as a TV (but much smaller), photo frame, and smart controller for your home automation gadgets. How much of an improvement over the current Google Home experience does that really amount to?

The only device I actually liked the sound of is the Pixel Fold. It’s a phone when you need one (like, say, to make a call, or just shove it in a pocket), but it unfolds into a 7.6 inch tablet. As I said Google I/O 2016, “I strongly feel that seven inches is exactly the right size for a light entertainment device–something that fits into the space between a phone you can hold to your ear and a TV you watch from across the room. I’m deeply disappointed to learn that Google apparently doesn’t see that as a viable niche.” I’m delighted that it only took Google seven years to come to the right conclusion.

They hyped the “use it as its own tripod” feature, which amuses me highly, considering that Samsung got there first. But regardless of who invented it, it’s a useful tool, especially since it lets you use the high quality “rear” camera for selfies.

The only down side I see is the price. $1800? Ouch. For that price, you could superglue three Pixel 7a phones together with hinges from your local hardware store, and have a truly humongous folding phone. Still, it’s the same price as Samsung’s latest foldable phone–and we’re already seeing discounts. Google’s own Fi store is offering $700 off (over two years), which puts it in the same ballpark as an iPhone 14 or Samsung S23. Or if you trade in the right phone, they’ll knock off a full thousand bucks over the same two years.

A Few More Thoughts

Google I/O will be opening later today, too late for me to watch the “What’s Coming” presentation and write a post. So I’ll save that for next week–there are definitely going to be things I want to talk about–and for today, a few thoughts about Apple versus Microsoft and why I got a Mac instead of a new Windows laptop.

I hesitated a bit before I bought the MacBook. I mean, cost aside*, it was a big jump. I’ve warned a lot of people against switching from Windows to Mac or visa-versa because of the learning curve. And even though I was already fairly well versed in the Apple Way of Doing Things, it still took me a while to get into the swing of it. (There are still things I’m having trouble with, most notably remembering to use the Command key instead of Control; muscle memory is second only to olfactory memory in persistence.)

* To be fair to Apple, now that I’ve been hands-on in real world scenarios instead of looking at specs and benchmarks, I’m confident that to get similar performance in a similarly sized Windows machine would have cost even more.

But what really tipped the boat in Apple’s favor was the realization that right now Apple respects its users more than Microsoft.

Think about that for a moment. I thought about it for more than a single moment.

After all, Apple has a reputation as a “My way or the highway” company. But if you think about it, many of the moves they’ve made lately have been in the direction of giving users more choice and more flexibility. Just to name a couple: the phones have gotten the ability to customize the home and lock screen in ways they’ve never had. iPads and Macs have gotten a whole new UI organized around multitasking–without Apple making it mandatory.

On the other hand, Microsoft has, since the release of Windows 11, been all about reducing choice. Remember how much outcry there was when people realized they couldn’t put their Taskbar on the side or top of the screen? Or that they couldn’t show seconds in the clock? It took Microsoft a year to fix the latter, and the former is still unchanged.

Or consider the setup process.

On a Mac, when it’s time to create your user account, Apple lets you choose a name and asks if you want to sign in with an Apple ID. Asks. You can decline. Yes, Apple will nag you about it from time to time, but you can quite easily run your computer without ever getting an Apple ID. Further, even if you sign in, the Apple ID is, by default, only used with Apple’s interactive services. The user name and password you chose remain untouched.

Contrast that with the Windows 11 experience. In Microsoft’s world, you don’t get to choose a user name and password. You are forced to create or sign into a Microsoft account*. Microsoft then creates the account on the machine, choosing your user name and forcing the Microsoft account password onto the local account. Want a different password for security? Tough. Want no password at all, for convenience? Too bad. Don’t want your data getting stored in the cloud? What a pity. By default, OneDrive will move your Desktop, Pictures, and Documents into the cloud. Yes, move.

* Yes, there are ways around this. But the point is, you need to be aware that you don’t have to create a Microsoft account, and you need to be geekly enough to hunt down the workarounds.

In fairness to Apple again, Apple also requires you to have a password–but Apple has a checkbox you can set so that computer won’t ask for the password when you sign on. Admittedly, you have to hunt for it, but given the security implications, that’s not unreasonable. Unlike Microsoft, Apple lets you make that decision. They also let you decide if you want your data in the cloud. iCloud is installed, but you have to opt in to using it, even if you sign in with an Apple ID. Perfectly fine, because after all, it’s your computer.

And that’s where the essential difference between Microsoft and Apple lies: Apple, despite their desire to lock you into their walled garden, recognizes that you own the computer, and you can use it the way you want to. Microsoft, on the other hand, clearly believes they own your computer.

Think I’m exaggerating? Consider how difficult Microsoft makes it to set any browser other than Edge as the default. Consider how they continue to nag you to switch to Edge–generally about once a month, whenever they release an update. Consider how they keep breaking the “set default” functionality–and how they ignore your choice within their own programs.

Wait–it gets even worse. Current versions of Windows in public beta test include advertisements. Open your start menu and find a recommendation to buy Microsoft Office. Visit a popular website in Edge and get an ad suggesting you try a different site. Heck, this time last year, Microsoft was testing ads in the File Explorer. Yes, that yellow-and-blue folder icon at the bottom of your screen that you use to find your files.

I don’t expect Microsoft to change their ways. And I recognize that there’s no escape from Windows and Microsoft; I fully expect ads to start appearing in Word–even Word on the Mac–at some point in the not-so-distant-future.

And I also expect that I’ll be thinking very long and hard before I buy another Windows computer.

And I’m Back

Well, as back as I ever am these days.

It’s been a busy few weeks, and I just had to let something go. Can’t skip out on work or the cats will start supplementing their diets by nibbling on my extremities. Can’t avoid doing the taxes; the less said about that non-option, the better. And there was other stuff I’m not ready to talk about that also couldn’t wait.

And then there was the other stuff. Stuff I wanted to do, sure, but it took time and attention.

We bought a new mattress, for instance. Our old one was old. As Maggie put it, “old enough to vote, maybe even old enough to drink”. Not that it ever registered to vote (or if it did, we never saw a ballot come in the mail), nor did we ever catch it getting shit-faced in front of the TV*. Mattress shopping in a “post”-COVID environment is nerve-wracking–“who’s been sprawled on this test mattress before me” isn’t a question you want to be asking yourself every five minutes–but I have to say that it was worth it. My back hurts much less now than it did in the days before twelve inches of memory foam entered our lives. And when it comes to nigh-indescribable joy, there isn’t much that can top being able to slide out of bed without springs creaking and the whole mattress shifting when one of us needs to answer a late-night/early morning phone call from Mother Nature.

* Yes, we do have a TV in the bedroom. Doesn’t everyone? I mean, it’s the most comfortable place to kick back and watch hours of programming–as long as your mattress isn’t belching stale beer scent in your face.

The real biggie, though–the thing that has monopolized my so-called free time for the past couple of weeks–is a new computer.

A digression.

Long-time readers may recall that when I started this blog a decade ago(!), I was primarily a Linux user. If I needed Windows for something, I’d either fire up a virtual machine or one of the far too many older machines piled in my office. Before that, I’d bounced from Atari to DOS to early Windows, early Mac, early Linux, back to Windows, back to Linux, and around and around I goes, and where I stops, well, you get the idea.

Over the past few years–since Microsoft introduced WSL (essentially, Linux running inside of Windows), I’ve been moving more and more to Windows Land. Most things I wanted to do were just as easy in Windows 10 as Linux, and for the few that weren’t, WSL has served admirably.


It was time for a change. I’ve been tied to a desktop with my last couple of “main machines”, but I wanted to return to a more portable system. It was a pain in the neck to move my email over to the loyal Surface Go when I needed to be out and about. And to be blunt, the Surface Go’s keyboard really wasn’t suitable for extended typing. A blog post, maybe. A novel, nope.

So I started looking at laptops. And I was seduced.

As of a couple of weeks ago, I’ve once again become an Apple user. Specifically, I found a very good deal on a lightly used MacBook Air–so lightly used that the Apple logo stickers were still in the box. Yes, the new one with an M2. In that lovely Midnight* color. With 8 gigs of RAM and 512 of storage.

* Mind you, it’s not the color I associate with the middle of the night; it’s not nearly dark enough for that. But then, Apple is the company that can declare pink to be “Rose Gold” and have the entire world agree with them, so if they want to call charcoal gray “Midnight”, I’m hardly in a position to dispute the matter.

And, yes, most of the software I need is just as available in Appleville as in Windows Land or Linuxton. Not surprising, that latter: MacOS is, after all, also a UNIX-variant. Call it a second cousin once removed to Linux.

I had the Mac about 90% set up the way I wanted it within two days. Microsoft Office downloaded from the Apple App Store and activated flawlessly when I signed in. Web browsers installed easily and synchronized their settings with the Windows versions. Migrating my email took less than half an hour. Most of the rest of those two days was taken up with finding replacements for smaller programs (a music tag editor, an image viewer that wouldn’t try to take over my entire picture library,…) and tweaking a few tiny Linux command line programs I’d written to run in the Mac’s Terminal*.

* Did you know every Mac has an easily accessible command line? It does, and it works almost identically with it’s Linux brethren. A victory for those of us who would rather type “for i in * ; do [something] ; done” than use mouse clicks to select a bunch of files and do [something] to each one, one at a time.

I can’t work without my dual-monitor setup: one big one for whatever I’m actively doing and a smaller one off to the side to hold my email so I can just glance over at it from time to time. The Air officially only supports one external display. Enter a hub that uses some sweet software trickery to support a second external screen. Works like magic. So now I have to figure out what I’m going to put on the third screen–the one built into the MacBook.

You want to hear something funny? The one thing that took the longest and threatened to entirely derail my Macgration was this blog. Seriously.

Another digression.

This blog runs on a platform called WordPress. About two years ago, WordPress made a major change to the software’s built-in editor. I won’t bore you with the details, but the result of the change was that I could no longer write my posts offline in whatever tool I wanted to use, save it on my own hard drive, and then copy it up to the blog. I had to use their new editor, which I found totally incomprehensible and which didn’t (and still doesn’t) allow for a local save. I nearly gave up the blog. And then I discovered that there was a way to hook Word into WordPress.

It’s true: the day was, in actual fact, saved by Microsoft.

Guess what doesn’t work in the Macintosh version of Word. Again, to avoid boring you, I won’t go into the reasons why it doesn’t work. Nor will I go through all the gyrations I went through trying to either make it work or find an acceptable replacement.

Long story short, remember what I said up above about using a virtual machine on Linux to run the occasional Windows program I couldn’t do without? I’m doing that again.

A small (30GB or so) chunk of the hard drive holds a Windows virtual machine with nothing but Microsoft Office installed. Word is hooked into WordPress* and I’m able to write my posts, save them on my computer, and hit the Publish button, just like before.

Once again, the day is saved by Microsoft.


I mentioned up above that the new machine has 8GB of memory. I was worried that wouldn’t be enough, but you know what? It seems to be plenty. As I write this, I’ve got the Windows virtual machine going, a video playing for background noise, four web browsers open to various pages I’ve been consulting, my email, two Terminal sessions doing things via remote connections to my Windows and Linux machines, and about half a dozen utility programs doing things like monitoring my available memory.

It’s all running smoothly. If the computer is swapping programs in and out of working memory, it’s doing it so smoothly and quietly that I can’t see it happening. No audio or video skips, no hesitation switching over to the email or toggling from one browser to another.

Let me close here with a couple of quotes from old blog posts:

There’s been a longstanding perception that Apple computers feel slow … No matter how fast the computer is getting work done, the user interface has often felt sluggish … I can’t imagine an M1 Ultra machine feeling sluggish.

I can’t speak for the M1 Ultra, but boy-howdy does this M2 feel the exact antithesis of sluggish.

There’s a notch at the top of the display for the camera … I kind of like the idea. Gives more physical space for the screen, and if you’ve got so much stuff in your Menu Bar that it runs into the notch, you probably ought to slim things down a bit anyway.

At the moment, I count 18 things in my Menu Bar, including the clock. Works just fine on the big monitor, where there’s no notch. Over on the built-in screen, though, only the clock and 12 icons are visible. Picture me blushing. I’ve at least arranged them so the ones that get hidden are the ones I’m least likely to need. Nobody really uses their Dropbox and OneDrive Menu Bar icons, right?

And, finally:

But with the exception of the shared photos mess, I’m genuinely impressed with what’s coming. Maybe not quite enough to buy a Mac, and definitely not enough to replace my Pixel phone with an iPhone.

I’m still not anywhere within seventeen million parsecs of getting an iPhone.


The other day, I peeked into the library, aka “Kokoro’s Room”, to see how she was doing.

As is often the case, she was snoozing in her heated nest. I wanted a picture.

Taking a photo with a cellphone through a door that’s only slightly ajar is tough. I tried again.


I didn’t want to open the door further. That usually wakes her up, and I didn’t want to disturb her sleep.

Fortunately, we have tools we can use in these situations. A few minutes shoving things around in GIMP, and voilà!

Meezers look much better as (nearly) complete entities, rather than a collection of parts.

Overlooked, Part Two

A bit over two years ago, I vented about the increasing complexity and inconsistency in smartphone interfaces.

If you missed that post, or have forgotten it–two years is a long time to remember anything these days, given all the demands the ever-changing crisis du jour places on us–the gist was that Apple keeps changing their mind about how iPhones should work, while Google takes a laissez-faire approach, allowing developers to do pretty much whatever they want. The result is that, unless you’ve been following along with the evolution of your phone’s UI, there’s an Everest-level learning curve to surmount. At the time, I suggested that someone considering their first smartphone should take a look at the phones designed for seniors; two years on, I’m not sure that’s still a valid recommendation.

Because it seems as though there’s an unnatural law that the more complicated a product is, the less documentation comes with it.

For many smartphones, the documentation seems to consist largely of a single piece of paper showing you where to insert the SIM*–with no explanation of what it is and what it does–and a peel-off sticker on the screen that points to the various buttons and ports.

* Back in the day of the flip phone, your contact list was saved on the SIM. Moving to a new phone? Transfer the SIM and all your saved data was magically on the new device. Although SIMs can still store contacts, no phone has done so by default for at least a decade, and some don’t support it at all. Current phones store contacts on their internal storage, just like any other data. Yet phone salespeople are daily confronted by people who demand that their old SIM be installed in their new phone because “I can’t lose my phone numbers”.

Even the Jitterbugs and other senior-focused phones are cutting back on paper documentation in favor of on-device “Help”. If you can figure out how to access the help screens, you probably know enough about the device that you don’t need them.

And it’s not just smartphones.

Bought a computer lately? Very few come with any printed documentation beyond the legally mandated safety information. It’s a rare day when I don’t have to show someone how to turn on their new computer. As for the difference between “Shut Down” and “Sleep”? Don’t get me started.

Even gadgets that use to be simple enough for anyone to figure out are succumbing to the trend. Think about the simple alarm clock. You’ll have to think about it, because you probably can’t find one. First the manufacturers added radios. Then came multiple alarms, followed by on-ceiling displays, charging ports, and integrated coffee makers. And yet the manual will typically be four pages of illustrations intended to be language-independent.

Fortunately, one variety of device continues to keep documentation creators employed: the landline phone. I bought a new phone system for my mother a year or so ago. It comes with five phones, has a built-in answering machine, speakerphone capability, and large, (fairly) clearly labeled buttons. To make a call, you dial the number and press “Phone”. Maybe not totally intuitive for those used to waiting for a dial tone, but simple enough that most people eventually figure it out. Of course, if they can’t, they can always refer to the handy manual included in the box. It’s 104 pages long–and the section on making a call takes up a grand total of two of those pages. (I just read those pages, and it turns out if you miss hearing a dial tone you can use it in more or less the traditional way: pick it up and then dial (you do still need to press “Phone” for it to actually dial, but it’s still a nice nod to user expectations.

Even better, you can actually hang up the phone. That’s right: unlike your smartphone, if you set this phone down in its cradle, it disconnects the call! Try slamming your smartphone down to express your rage at the latest telephone scammer and all you’ll get is an expensive repair bill.

Too bad the telcos are doing their level best to do away with landlines, much less landline phones.

Customer Service from a Sandwich Perspective

Bell peppers don’t belong on a meatball sandwich.

No, don’t bother arguing. This is non-negotiable.

A meatball sandwich–a proper meatball sandwich–has but four components: a solid roll (and no, not Dutch Crunch) that can absorb liquid without falling apart, tomato sauce, mozzarella cheese, and meatballs.

Anything else distracts from pure appreciation of the star of the dish; a well-spiced meatball is a thing of purity and beauty. And bell peppers are a wishy-washy, waxy substitute for food, barely a step up from lettuce on the “why would you want to eat that on a sandwich” ladder.

Not that I’m trying to convince you about any of this. It’s not the point. Today.

I bring up the subject of the meatball sandwich because it was recently the catalyst for a lesson in customer service done both poorly and well.

There’s a localish pizza chain around here, Me-n-Ed’s, that does a quite good meatball sandwich*. They use well-toasted focaccia, the meatballs have flavor, and the sauce-to-cheese-to-meat ratio is darn near perfect. And then they spoil the sandwich by adding those darn peppers.

* They do add onions, but I can live with that. Onions, unlike bell peppers, are actual food. Interestingly, now that I look at the online menu, it appears that not all the locations have the meatball sandwich. Nice that they allow some local variations instead of enforcing a single menu across all locations.

Fortunately, experience has shown that they’re quite willing to let you customize your order; omitting the peppers doesn’t even cost extra.

We usually phone in our order, then drive over and pick it up. This weekend, with all the rain, we thought we’d try ordering online for delivery. It didn’t go well.

The online order system is provided by something called intouchposonline.com. Intouch is, to put it bluntly, out of touch.

First, the site doesn’t work in Firefox. Windows close without saving data–including the registration window closing if you try to select anything other than “Mobile” as the type of phone. Granted, Firefox is only the fourth most popular browser out there, but why would you do so little testing that you prevent 5% of your potential customers from becoming actual customers?

So I switched to Chrome, registered, and signed in.

Strike One: I registered using the same phone number I’ve given them in the past when making a phone order, but there was no indication that I had a history with them. No saved credit card information, no previous orders, nothing to show there’s any communication between the online and offline systems.

Strike Two: Each sandwich has an “Add to cart” and a “Customize” button. But clicking either one takes you to a page where you select whether you’re making a delivery, take out, or dine in order. If that choice needs to be made before you can order, maybe ask for it before you display the menu? Otherwise you’re yanking your customers from one mental workflow to another.

Strike Three: Once I was able to customize my sandwiches–NO PEPPERS!–and add them to the cart, they displayed as non-customized. Clicking the Edit button showed the customization, but by that point, I’d lost faith that my order would be processed properly.

Contrast with the telephone order process:

“Hi, I’d like to place an order for pick up.”

“Can I have your phone number, please?”

I gave my number, he asked if I was Casey, and when I said yes, he said “Last time you ordered two meatball sandwiches, no bell peppers. Would you like the same thing?”

I confirmed that that was what I wanted, and he said they’d be ready in twenty minutes.

Took less than a minute from when I picked up the phone to when I put it down, and I had complete faith that I’d get the food the way I wanted it.

As I said, there’s a lesson there.

Clearly, whoever designed the phone order system was thinking about it from the customer’s perspective: “How do we make this fast and easy?”

By contrast, whoever designed the online system approached it from the perspective of intouchposonline.com and the developers: “How do we deploy the system quickly and start making money?”

I know which system I’ll be using in the future. And saving the online order surcharge means I can give the guys at the store a bigger tip. That’s the real win of a properly designed, customer focused system.


No, you didn’t overlook a weekend post. There wasn’t one.

I’m not going to apologize, just lay the blame squarely where it belongs: with the critters.

If they refuse to do anything sufficiently photogenic when I have a camera handy, there really isn’t much I can do, now is there?

Of course, it doesn’t help that the recent cold weather has reduced their activity to “lie around on the bed, getting up only to eat and use the box”. Cute, but when the only difference from one day to the next is in who has staked out which chunk of blanket, the photos do get more than a bit repetitious.

Admittedly, we get minor variations.

For instance, there was an earthquake recently. Small, but centered only a few miles from our house. All cats vanished from the bed. But when you’re awakened at 3:30am by multiple paws thundering across your abdomen, photography is not the first thing that springs to mind. Or maybe it would be for you. It wasn’t for me.

A couple of days later, the smoke detector in the bedroom started making its “battery low” beep: one chirp every 40 seconds. Yuki couldn’t stand the sound and began yowling as though his tail was being pulled out by the roots*. Did I mention that this was at 6:00 am? It was. Again, photography not the first thing on my mind.

* He’s very proud of his luxurious plume. I dare say the psychological pain of having it yanked out would exceed the far-from-negligible physical pain.

Anyway, I’m still keeping my phone handy, but until the weather warms up and critters start moving around and doing things during hours I’m awake, there may be the occasional missed post.

Moving on.

File this under “WQTS”. It’s not significant enough to warrant a post of its own, but I thought it was worth pointing out.

Not too long ago, I had cause to install the Amazon Music program on my computer. It went through the usual steps*: download the installer, run it, twiddle my fingers for a minute or so, and then try to remember my Amazon password so I could sign into the program.

* Bother. I just noticed I could have installed it via the winget command I mentioned last week. Alas for missed opportunities.

All was well until after I closed the program and then realized I’d forgotten one of the things I’d intended to do. So I checked the All Programs menu, and was befuddled to see Amazon Music listed not once, but twice.

Normally, when a program wants to add itself to that menu, it creates a program shortcut in a specific folder. Done. Or, if the program needs multiple entries (for example, one for the program itself and one for a link to the company’s support website), it’ll create a folder inside that special Windows folder and put its links in that private folder.

Amazon, in an impressive display of bureaucratic bungling, does both: it creates a program shortcut named “Amazon Music” and a folder, also called “Amazon Music”, which–you guessed it–contains a program shortcut named “Amazon Music” (and also a link to the uninstall program, should you be so meanspirited as to want to get rid of “Amazon Music” in all its infinite incarnations. Which Windows, in its great wisdom mishandles, shows as two program icons, instead of one program and one folder.

“Well,” I said to myself, “that’s silly. And redundant.” So I deleted the standalone icon, thinking Windows would then properly display the folder.

Not only did that not work–Windows continued to show a program instead of a folder–but when I launched the program it recreated the icon I had deleted!

So Windows mishandles the situation where there’s a folder with the same name as a program. And Amazon overrides its users’ specific instructions. WQTS?

Moving on again.

Amongst all the nocturnal feline disturbances and the normal daytime alarums and excursions, I also found time to get my head examined. The conclusion: I still have a head.

More seriously, I’ve been somewhat concerned about my hearing, given the daily assault on my eardrums that is the retail environment.

It was, in its way, almost entertaining. I got the “raise your hand when you hear a tone” test, the “repeat the words this recording is saying” test, and the “repeat the sentence this other recording is saying with decreasing volume relative to background party noises” test. All while sitting in a soundproof room with earphones in. Okay, so maybe “entertaining” isn’t quite the right word. It was interesting and enlightening.

As I implied above, the results were generally good. I’ve got some marginal hearing loss in one ear, especially in the range of pitches typical of speech–which certainly explains the trouble I have hearing people at work when the background noise gets particularly excessive–but on the whole, I’ve still got two functional ears.

I’ll take my victories where I can. I will say, however, that the brochure on how to listen better is pretty darn useless.

Back Up

It took three days, but my main computer is up again. Though, to be fair, one of those days was spent determining the extent of the problem.

At this point, let me state for the record that backups were not the problem.

I don’t actually know what the root cause of the problem was. Over the course of a couple of months, I got occasional pop-ups from Windows telling me to restart so it could check the hard drive for errors. And before anyone asks, yes, as best I could tell, the warnings were legit. Each time, I did as requested, the pop-ups stopped, and Windows kept chugging along.

Until last week. I restarted, watched the error check fail, and then Windows crash on boot. Several attempts to repair the problem failed.

Conveniently, my automatic backup had run the night before. I figured I could just restore from the backup and be set.

Before I go any further, let me summarize my backup strategy:

  1. I keep Windows and my programs on a separate hard drive from my data. That makes it easy to do…
  2. A full backup of the Windows drive that runs once a week. This is stored on a separate computer.
  3. A backup of all of the important data from the data drive to the second computer. This runs daily.
  4. Critical file–mostly, my writing–are stored in Dropbox, meaning they’re typically backed up within a few minutes of my making changes.
  5. Unfortunately, there are a few things that don’t fit well in this scheme. My email archive, for example, is stored on the Windows drive and can’t easily be moved. So messages I thought were important enough to save only get backed up once a week. Not ideal. I’m looking at that and a few other similar cases.

So I had a full backup of the Windows drive that was less than twelve hours old. Since the backup runs during the night, I’d only lose emails that had come in before I got up—which, as it happened, were entirely spam. Seems like a no-brainer to restore, right?

It took less than fifteen minutes. Windows booted, and I was back in business. For about an hour. Then I got the dreaded pop-up.

Restarted. Windows crashed.

I’ll skip about six hours of experimenting. Long story short, the backups were faithfully backing up both the corrupted files on the drive and whatever rogue program was causing the corruption. Which meant that, even if I fixed the corruption before booting Windows, the damage would continue to accumulate. I also checked back several months and the corruption was in those backups as well. Obvious in retrospect, since I’d been getting the warnings for several months.

At that point, I had two choices: I could wipe the disk clean, reinstall Windows and my programs, and reconfigure everything. Or I could go back far enough to get clear of the corruption.

The second choice had a lot of appeal, but when I started looking at the amount of work involved, I realized it would have taken even longer, since I’d have to figure out which backup was safe, and then do all the same reinstallations and updates to get me back to current. And there are some advantages to starting fresh, most notably, all the programs I’d installed ages ago and hadn’t used since would be gone, freeing up disk space and clearing a bunch of useless junk out of the Windows configuration.

So I did the clean install. The good news: Most programs store their configuration information in a hidden folder called “AppData”. Since my AppData had been backed up and was, fortunately, free of corruption, I was able to skip a lot of setup work. Instead of installing the programs and then trying to remember how they had been set up originally, I could restore the AppData information for a program and then install it. Most of the programs recognized the AppData and treated their installation as an upgrade. Very handy.

Also very handy: Windows 11 has a new installer program called “winget”. Instead of going to the website, clicking through several links to find the installer, then running it and answering a bunch of questions about how to install it–questions that I, like everyone else, generally takes the defaults on–all I had to do was type “winget install” and the name of the program. The installer downloads automatically installs with all the default values*. No questions, no clicking. A shame Microsoft didn’t do that years ago.

* The Linux-savvy among you may be thinking “Hey, that sounds a lot like installing a program with apt-get or zipper.” You’re absolutely right: it does. Funny, that.”

Lessons learned:

First–and I knew this already, but it bears repeating–you can’t have too many backups. Not backups of backups, necessarily, but the more important something is, the more often you should back it up and the more places you should back it up to.

Second, since you’re doing multiple backups anyway, use different tools. This improves your chances of being able to recover your data from somewhere even if one or two copies isn’t available, due to a forgotten password or other lapse.

Third, automate your backups as much as possible. A backup that has to be done by hand is a backup that isn’t going to happen nearly often enough.

And fourth, don’t assume your backups are perfect. Have a backup backup plan.