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.

SAST 22

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.

Oh, For Cryin’ Out Loud

I give up. Apple has officially torn my new product appreciation muscles.

This is, if I’ve counted correctly, the fifty-seventh product release announcement this year, and it’s still only October.

At this point, I just can’t get excited about them.

What’s new? I’m so glad you asked.

There’s an M2-based iPad Pro. Faster than the ancient M1-based devices, of course. And it can detect that you’re about to touch the screen with an Apple Pencil, allowing it to show appropriate previews: location and color if you’re in a drawing application, links if you’re using Safari, and so on.

Hey, a whole new plain old iPad iPad. Smaller bezels, TouchID on the power button, USB-C, and an A14 Bionic chip–yes, two generations behind the iPhone 14 Pro and Pro Max, and one generation behind every other non-M device Apple makes. Even the iPad Mini has a newer chip than this new iPad. But that’s okay, because Apple has only raised the price by about $150 over last year’s model. But, hey, if you can’t go on without a canary yellow iPad in your life, this is the only model that can keep you happy.

And finally, there’s a new Apple TV. Two, actually. They’re both running the A15 Bionic–yes, I was serious when I said everything Apple makes has a newer CPU than the new iPad–and both go up to 4K with support for HDR10+ and Dolby Vision*. The only significant difference for 95% of the user base is that the one with 64GB of storage is Wi-Fi only, while the one with 128GB has Wi-Fi and Ethernet. Which raises the question of why Apple is bothering with two model, especially since the price difference is a mere $20.

* If that string of letters and numbers is complete nonsense to you, just take it as “a bunch of video improvements that people have been clamoring for.

In short, and as usual, Apple’s message is “Bigger, stronger, faster” with an asterisk for the poor, neglected regular iPad. Hardly seems worth the effort of putting out a press release, doesn’t it?

SAST 21

I’m not sure what’s causing it, but linear thought and get-up-and-go seem to have deserted me this week. The calendar says it’s Wednesday, but my brain is absolutely convinced it’s Monday. Except during those intervals where it decides that two Mondays in three days is a really bad idea and declares it to be Septober 37th.

So, a few quick hits, dashed off many, many hours after my self-imposed posting deadline.

I imagine you’ve heard that Google is releasing new hardware. The Pixel 7 series of phones are evolutionary advances over the Pixel 6 series. Better in some marketing-influenced way (keep in mind that most of the significant changes are in software and will undoubtedly roll down to the older generation in due course). A few cosmetic tweaks. If you’ve got a 6, I don’t see any really compelling reason to upgrade.

Then there’s the Pixel Watch. Which really comes across as a Apple Watch wannabe. It’s got Fitbit integration and the necessary sensors to allow it to do most of the health-related things the Apple Watch does. It also has a claimed 24 hour battery life, so–like the Apple Watch–you’re going to be charging it every day. Remember when watches, even “smart” watches, could run for a week or two on a single charge? Actually, you can still find ones that can do that, but the Big Two are so determined to make watches into do-everything devices, you’re never going to find one with a Big A or Big G butt stamp. (And, yes I am bitter about Google’s decision to use a proprietary method of attaching the band, rather than allowing users to customize with the millions of bands that are already on the market.)

What else? Pixel Tablet. Not coming out until next year; plenty of time for them to release specs and hype before we see it. Nest Wifi Pro. Nest Doorbell (Wired). Great if you need ’em, zero interest for most of the world’s population.

Moving on.

Yes, of course I watched the Mariners’ first game against their nemesis, Houston yesterday.

Yes, of course I’m bitterly disappointed in how it turned out.

But no, I’m not going to second guess. I’m just going to say, “Seattle sports. sigh“.

‘Nother game in Tejas tomorrow. Hopefully with a happier ending: it’s a best of five series, so losing both games in Houston would force the Mariners to win three straight. I’m not sure they’ve ever won three in a row from the Astros.

Meanwhile…

Microsoft announced new hardware yesterday too.

The Surface Pro 9 comes with your choice of an Intel CPU or a Microsoft-designed chip, the SQ3. Because abandoning the “Surface Pro X” branding that distinguished between the two product lines isn’t going to cause major confusion among consumers. I forsee lots of returns when people discover their new laptop won’t run all the software they want to put on it. Heck, people still haven’t figured out the “S-mode” app restrictions yet.

That aside, they both look like solid machines in that thin-and-light aka two-in-one space. Microsoft has finally moved from USB-C to full-blown Thunderbolt 4, at least on the Intel machines. That’s progress.

There’s also the Surface Laptop 5. Thunderbolt there, too, along with overall decent specs at a reasonable price. Still a really low budget webcam, though. You’ll probably want to invest in a USB camera if you’re a serious Zoomer.

Other announcements are much less exciting. The Surface Studio 2 is getting a “+”: not enough of an upgrade for Microsoft to justify bumping it to “3”. New “Designer” software if you have a Microsoft 365 subscription. New hardware with a focus on accessibility*. Presentation and audio hardware designed to make online meetings better.

* I’m not casting aspersions at Microsoft by lumping it into the “not very exciting category”. It’s seriously great news for those who can’t use conventional mice and/or keyboards and I give Microsoft major props for going down this path. But the regrettable truth is that 90+% of the computer-using public isn’t going to care one way or the other.

The only thing that really made me sit up and take notice (for the few seconds my brain allowed) is the note that Windows will be able to automatically synchronize pictures from “the iOS Photos app” (i.e. iCloud). Done well, this will remove a major pain point for any Windows user with an iPhone. Done poorly, well, we won’t be any worse off than we are right now.

WQTS 14

A little more than a year ago, in discussing the failings of our car radio, I said “And there is a chance that JVC’s more recent units radios [sic] were designed and built following more rigorous design and testing processes.

Excuse me while I laugh hysterically.

Yes, I really did get a new car radio. Only a year and a half after sayingDespite its limitations, I have no plans to replace the radio with something newer and more capable.” (Insert that famous quote about foolish consistencies here.)

I got fed up with the lack of Bluetooth. Getting sound out of my phone onto the car speakers so I could listen to ballgames on the way home from work required plugging in multiple cables and random bits of gadgetry. And every time I tried to simplify the process by leaving everything hooked up, the Mariners would take an East Coast road trip, meaning games were over by the time I got in the car. Not to mention, it looked messy.

And, more to the point, it was starting to fail. The sound would cut out randomly, requiring a reboot. Or the display would stop displaying, also requiring a reboot. Or it would refuse to change channels, requiring (you guessed it) a reboot.

So the Circuit City relic–yes, the old radio really did come from the late lamented CC–now resides in a bucket in the garage, and its spot in the dashboard has been taken over by a newcomer.

The new one isn’t a JVC product. It’s a Kenwood. Except that the full name of the company that made it is JVCKenwood*. Which I hadn’t realized when I bought it. Not that knowing would have stopped me. Despite the old one’s limitations, I really did like it.

* Apparently there’s no slash or other separator between the C and the K, much to my surprise.

We haven’t had a power failure since it was installed, so I can’t address whether it, like its predecessor, has issues remembering user settings. But even the few weeks I’ve had it makes it obvious that JVCK’s design review process hasn’t changed for the better.

Let’s start with something that might not be obvious. The English version of the Quick Start Guide is 37 pages long. That’s one heck of a slow quick start. Still, it could be worse. The full manual (only available via PDF download) is 120 pages. Whoever wrote the Quick Start managed to trim more than three-quarters of the text.

But, still. If it takes almost forty pages to introduce someone to the basic features of a product, you have to face the fact that you haven’t done much to build in discoverability.

That aside, the new box is a significant upgrade. No more 11 character LCD with scrolling titles. Instead, it’s got a large screen (okay, not maybe not in absolute terms, but certainly by comparison. “Almost the entire front of the unit” easily qualifies as “large” as far as I’m concerned). And it uses proportional fonts, so more characters can fit in a given amount of space. In typical English language song titles, this seems to work out to about 20 characters. It also uses a smaller font for artists and album titles, so they can squeeze in around 25 characters. That’s an improvement.

Except that they don’t scroll. So Kate’s favorite truncated song title becomes “Papa’s Got a Brand “. Are we talking cattle ranching or personal promotion?

I lied. Actually, they do scroll. If you tap a small on-screen control* (yes, it is a touchscreen), the title/artist/album will scroll. Once. Better pull over if you want to (a) find the button to tap and (b) read the scrolling information without (c) causing an accident.

* This is a theme, actually. There are lots and lots of onscreen buttons. Most of them are small, and those that aren’t are tiny. Clearly nobody involved in designing this radio considered how to use it while driving. Or, if the assumption was that it would only be used in vehicles with on-the-steering wheel controls, said controls should be included with the radio.

Who thought one-and-done was a good idea? And I checked very carefully: there is no setting for autoscrolling, or even “keep scrolling once tapped”.

The old radio had a dial to change the volume. A nice dial that stuck up from the front of the box, easy to see out of your peripheral vision, so you could reach over and turn the sound up or down without taking your eyes off the traffic. The new one? Two tiny buttons at the lower corner of the radio. After several weeks, I still haven’t developed enough muscle memory to change the volume without looking. I wait until I get stuck at a red light.

There are other buttons. I have no idea what they do, because they’re equally tiny, and I don’t really want to experiment while driving. No, let me amend that. Once of them–helpfully labeled “ATT”–mutes the radio, presumably so you can quiet it enough to hear the traffic cop who’s chewing you out for swerving across three lanes of traffic while you hunted for the volume buttons. (Checking the Quick Start Guide, I see that “ATT” is right next to the “HOME” button–which also doubles as the power button. Nice.

Moving on.

One feature I hadn’t considered when buying the radio, but greatly enjoy is the ability to plug in a thumb drive full of music files. And, hey, I’ve got a thumb drive already loaded with my entire music library, almost 50,000 tracks, nicely sorted into folders by artist and album. Feel like some ZZ-Top, Brave Combo, Danny Coots, or…? Got you covered. As long as you want to listen to a specific track or album. Because there’s no way to play* all tracks in a folder full of folders**.

* Not quite true. If you start playing a track in folder/subfolder1, it will play through to the end of subfolder1, then go on to subfolder2. But you can’t shuffle all of folder’s tracks; hit the shuffle button (another tiny on-screen icon), and the radio will shuffle the current subfolder, then move on to the next subfolder and shuffle that.

** Also not quite true. If there’s a playable track in folder, it’ll go from that to subfolder1, then subfolder2, and so on. It’ll even shuffle the entire set of tracks in the subfolders (as long as you hit the shuffle button before the first track ends). But why would you have a random song in each artist’s top-level folder?

Shuffle is a particularly vexing issue for me. I like the ability to be surprised with something I haven’t heard for a while. So if I’m not sure what I want to listen to, I’ll often tell my playback device to shuffle everything. Guess what you can’t do with this radio.

Actually, you can shuffle everything. Go into the search function and hit play without making a selection. Hey, it works! For a little while. Then you realize you’re hearing the same artists over and over. Turns out that search–and therefor the search-based shuffle–can only load 1,000 tracks at a time. Oops.

Come on! Even my iPod Classic (pre-upgrade) could shuffle more than tracks than that.

Apparently, nobody considered the actual use cases for thumb drives larger than, say, 32GB. Even though someone did check off the boxes in the requirements document that said “support exFAT” and “drives up to 512GB”.

There are minor annoyances, too, pointing to inadequate testing and/or limited post-release support (the firmware for the radio has apparently been updated a grand total of twice since the initial release in 2020). For example, Android Auto can’t connect to the radio unless the phone is unlocked, even though I’ve selected the option to connect without unlocking. Swiping controls left/right works nicely unless you move your finger too slowly, in which case the radio sees a tap instead of a swipe. Android Auto always starts in the Map app (though, to be fair, this may be Google’s fault, not JVCK’s). And so on.

All my complaints notwithstanding, I do consider this radio a major upgrade from the old one. I love having the big screen that shows (most of) the title, artist, and album information at the same time instead of making me switch among them. Album art onscreen is nice, especially while listening to SiriusXM channels.

And the Bluetooth works nicely. It connects automatically and rarely skips or stutters. Baseball in the car, without unsightly wires and gadgets draped over the dashboard. Heaven!

They Don’t Make It Easy

They really don’t.

Backing up for context.

Like most, our local supermarket chain–Lucky California and a few other chains under the same ownership–runs occasional contests. Makes sense: free goodies always attract customers.

Most recently, they partnered with Shell for a double whammy: the top prizes (awarded through drawings at the end of the contest) were free groceries for a year* and free gas for a year*. There were also smaller prizes, both for gas and groceries, and–to keep the excitement flowing–instant prizes of merchandise and loyalty program points.

* I’ll come back to what that means.

We always play the games. Why not? We shop there anyway, it doesn’t cost anything to enter, and we’re no more immune to the lure of “free” than anyone else.

Not that we expect to win anything significant. Last time, we won a free bag of chips. We made nachos.

This time, about halfway through the contest, we got an instant win for 50 loyalty points. That’s fine. We collect those, and every couple of months trade them in and get $20 off our next shopping trip. No other instant winners, and when the contest ended, we promptly forgot about it.

Months later, I got an email.

“Congratulations,” it said (with three exclamation marks). “Your online entry…has been drawn for the Groceries for a Year…!”

Let’s see. We’ve got gratuitous exclamation marks and bad grammar. We also have a “click here” link to claim the prize; the link points to a website that is not Lucky Supermarket nor the contest’s special domain. The sender’s email address is shown as being the contest’s domain, but the actual sending system doesn’t match Lucky, the contest, or the claiming website. The contact phone number in the email is not the same as the contact number on the contest website. And the message is signed by “Christine” (no last name).

That last one is actually a point in the email’s favor: most scam-spams include a full name, apparently because the scammers think it conveys respectability. Other evidence pointing to legitimacy: the email addressed me by name–spelled correctly–and my name isn’t part of the email address I’d used in signing up for the contest*.

* That’s by design, and for just this sort of occasion. If an email addresses me by the name in my email address, I can be fairly sure it’s spam.

So I was on the fence.

Contests and sweepstakes are required to keep lists of winners, and according to several online resources, you can sometimes check if your name is on the list by calling the contest sponsor. So I decided to call Lucky’s customer service number. No dice. The guy I talked to was very nice about the whole thing, but he didn’t have a list of winners, and he pointed out that until someone claimed a prize, they wouldn’t be on the list anyway. He suggested I write a letter to Corporate, or check the contest website for a phone number. Given that there’s always a time limit to claim prizes, the letter idea was pretty much dead in the water. And if the website had been compromised now that the contest was over, any phone numbers would be dubious at best.

I did take a look at the recent prize winners page on the website. Three of the four Groceries for a Year prizes had been claimed, and my name wasn’t on the list.

I flipped a coin and decided to take a chance. I filled out the claim form. It wanted my name, address, phone number, email address, birth date, and the address of the store I normally shop at. Since they already had all of that information from when I signed up for the loyalty program, giving it again was no big deal. It also required my SSN. I had qualms, but decided to take the chance.

About an hour later, I got another email from Christine (point in their favor for keeping the same name) thanking me for claiming my prize and asking me to fill out a W9 tax form, since the value of the prize was over $600. Fair enough; gotta keep the IRS happy, right?

I did check the contest website again and my name had been added to the list of winners. That relieved my mind immensely. Highly unlikely that if the site had been hijacked, the scammers would go to the trouble of adding names to it. After all, to make any such scam worthwhile, they’d have to target more than one underpaid writer.

So I filled out the W9 and sat back to wait for my prize.

Which, according to that second email would arrive in 6-10 weeks.

Free groceries for a year sounds great. Slightly less so when you realize the value has been capped. Specifically, it’s limited to $5200. That’s right, $100 a week. To be fair, pre-COVID, our weekly grocery bill did come in right around that number. Now, though, it’s gone up by thirty or forty percent.

Still, free is free, and saving five grand on groceries isn’t anything to sneer at. If food prices don’t go up significantly, the prize should still last us well into 2023.

Oh, and the prize is paid in gift cards. I had visions of receiving a box of 52 $100 gift cards, and wondered if they’d be date stamped, so we couldn’t use more than one a week. But there was that 6-10 week waiting period to find out.

Exactly a month later, I got a “Your package is on the way” notice from FedEx. I didn’t think much of it; I’d ordered several things online that week, so I was expecting to get several of those notices. However, this particular one was odd.

For one thing, the sender was listed as an individual, rather than any of the companies I’d bought from. Odder still, the sender’s address was listed as Modesto, California, but the package was shipping from Buffalo, New York.

That set my scam detector tingling again. Was this some kind of “send some cheap merchandise to a random person, then demand large sums of money under threat of being reported for theft” deal? Or a “forward the package to a third party, and when it arrives we’ll send you a check which will never arrive” game?

So I googled the sender’s name and Modesto. Hey, she’s a marketing manager for Lucky’s parent corporation and the street address is the corporate headquarters. Answers that question. (And no, her name isn’t Christine.)

The cards arrived on my doorstep almost exactly six weeks after I filled out the forms. And no, there weren’t 52 of them. Just eleven: one for $200, the rest for $500 each.

Then I notice the fine print on the back of each card, informing me that the cards need to be activated before use. Nothing in the accompanying letter, much less the earlier emails, suggests this has been done.

Dash off an email to Christine. Three hours later, she writes back to assure me that they are activated. Sure glad nobody intercepted the package–mail theft is endemic around here–or I would have been out my prize with no hope of recourse.

So, finally, we’re happy. But…

Let’s sum up: scammy emails, multiple domains in use with no transparency about their relationships, difficult to confirm legitimacy, lack of consistency between contacts, insufficient information at many steps.

From what I see online, this is typical for online contests. But why? Sure, if it’s hard to claim a prize, the sponsor will save money–most such contests have a “unclaimed prizes will not be awarded” rule–but hardly enough to justify doing it this way on purpose.

Is it possible that the people running these contests have never gotten a spam in their lives? Seems unlikely.

So why do they seem to be going out of their way to seem suspicious? Especially when they could make one simple change that would greatly reduce the awkwardness of the current system.

In order to submit contest entries, players have to have an account on the contest website. So, instead of sending an email directing the winner to a third-party website to file the claim, send one that directs them to sign into the contest website. That site can have the “please click here” to claim your prize.

Granted, it wouldn’t solve all the problems of the current system, but it would be a big step in the right direction.

Technician On Call

I had to do some work on Maggie’s computer the other day. Nothing particularly elaborate or complicated, just routine maintenance. But even though the work was well within my capabilities, I had assistance.

Rhubarb is a very helpful fellow and wanted to make sure I got the job done right.

(The truth is, his technical skills are a bit rusty; it’s been a while since he got really paws-on with a computer. For which the cooling system in Maggie’s machine is quite grateful–cat fur in the fans is just asking for thermal shutdowns. But, given his sister’s proclivity for biting the tails off of mice, I’d rather have his help than hers.)

More New Apple Hardware

Of course. Gotta release a new iPhone every year, right?

New watches, new AirPods, and new iPhones.

Allow me to summarize:

The Series 8 watches add a temperature sensor to allow ovulation tracking to the existing cycle tracking. Worthwhile for that large fraction of the potential user base that’s going to find it relevant. Kudos to Apple for continuing to enhance that feature, though I do find it a little odd that that’s what they chose to lead off with.

The Series 8 can also detect if you’ve been in an auto accident and–as with the longstanding fall detection–contact emergency services and contacts.

Hey, we’ve got a new definition of “all day”. Apparently that’s 18 hours. Seriously? You can’t even go one day without charging it?

Oh, wait, there’s a new “low power” mode that sacrifices some features to give you 36 hours between charges. I guess that’s nice if you don’t use the sacrificial victims. And it’s all done in software, so it’ll also apply to the Series 4, 5, 6, and 7 watches once they’re updated to WatchOS 9. Good to know they haven’t forgotten the older devices.

And there is, of course, a new Apple Watch SE for the cheapskates among us. Adds the crash detection, but it’s unclear whether it also adds the temperature sensors.

But the big–in every sense of the word–watch news is the Apple Watch Ultra. Larger than any previous Apple Watch. It’s got a new button, a frame that actually protects the edges of the crystal, and 36 hours of battery life without the low power mode. How about a dive computer? Built in.

Apple’s calling this thing “an essential tool for essentially anything”. Can I use it to open a bottle of beer? Probably not–but I’m sure someone will try. But really, does it seem like Apple is painting themselves into a corner by calling it the “Ultra”? I mean, a few years from now, what will they call the top-end successor watch? The “Mega”?

Anyway. On to the new AirPods.

No ultra here, just a new iteration of AirPods Pro. Better spatial audio (uses the camera in your iPhone to map the size and shape of your head so sound can be placed optimally for your unique body. Better noise cancelation, four tips instead of the previous three, better transparency mode (apparently it uses some noise cancelation to eliminate obnoxious noises while letting other environmental sounds through–that seems a bit risky somehow; do we really want it hiding things like construction noise while we’re walking down the street immersed in our phones?)

And then we get to the iPhones.

Brace yourselves: it would seem that the iPhone Mini is dead. Instead of Mini, iPhone, Pro, and Pro Max, we’re getting iPhone, Plus, Pro, and Pro Max. The regular iPhone 14 is a hefty 6.1 inches, and that Plus is a staggering 6.7 inches. Shades of phablets past! Of course, it’s taller and skinnier than a tablet form factor–don’t want to compete directly with the iPad Mini, naturally.

The 14 and 14 Plus will be using the A15 chip from the ancient iPhone 13 Pro. Improved cameras, of course. 5G, naturally.

Remember how Apple killed the floppy disk and the headphone jack? Now they’re killing the SIM tray. iPhone 14 will be eSIM only. That’s going to be an interesting educational challenge: millions of people still believe that the SIM card stores their contacts, despite the fact that that hasn’t been the case for at least a decade.

Hey, the 14 series has the same crash detection sensors as the new watches. And–wait for it–satellite connectivity. So even if you don’t have cellular service, you (or your phone acting on your behalf) can contact emergency services. And for less critical functions like “Find my iPhone”.

As for the 14 Pro, it comes in purple.

Yes, it’s got all the usual enhancements over the 14 (and 14 Plus) with regard to the cameras, power efficiency, and raw CPU–yes, a new A16 replaces that A15 that’s been handed down to the mainline phones). But, purple!

As for the size, the Pro and the Pro Max are the same as the 14 and 14 Plus, respectively.

Am I the only one who finds it amusing that with the introduction of the 14 series, the price for an iPhone 13 is now the same as for an iPhone 12? That being the case, why are they still selling the 12? Using up inventory? Also noteworthy and somewhat funny: the cost for the “low end” iPhone SE has gone up slightly. The only rationale I can see for buying an SE, rather than paying a bit more for a 12 or 13, is if you have to have the smallest phone available and never take pictures.

Bottom line (you knew this was coming, right?): Back in June, I said I was genuinely looking forward to seeing some of the new software features that’ll be coming in the new operating systems. But the new hardware? I’m “meh” about that. Mostly another round of more of the same, but “bigger…stronger…faster“. And purpler.