Knowing the Cost

Nearly three years ago, I wrote about my compulsion to record the details every time we put gas in the car. At the time, I said, “Mind you, none of this information is of any particular use.”

I’m thrilled to announce that after thirteen years, I’ve finally found value in that spreadsheet. Value beyond soothing the need to collect the numbers, I mean.

Hey, I just realized: since I’ve found a use for the numbers, they’re no longer just semi-random noise. They have meaning! They’re officially information. Data! I’m sure the spreadsheet is very proud.

But I digress.

Anyway, the point is that I have a job. Which requires me to commute. And now I can calculate how much it costs me to go to work.

The bridge toll is six bucks in one direction and zero in the other. And, frankly, that’s the lion’s share of the expense. But, being compulsive, I had to add in the cost of the gas.

One round trip is approximately 35 miles, regardless of which route I take*.

* As I noted recently, crossing the Richmond-San Rafael bridge is essentially a requirement to get from here to there. But there are multiple ways to get from here to the bridge. Since all the routes are functionally the same length, and all the drivers are using the same small group of traffic apps, it’s probably no surprise that it takes the same amount of time to drive all the routes. In this case, about an hour and a quarter. As Bay Area commutes go, that’s staggeringly short for the round trip.

According to my spreadsheet, each dollar we’ve spent on gas has been good for 8.6 miles driven. So one round trip to work costs a hair over four bucks in gas. Add the bridge toll and we get the total price of the trip: ten dollars. No, I’m not compulsive enough to figure in depreciation on the car.

Apply my salary–net, of course–and you get forty-four minutes and a handful of seconds*.

* Yes, I realize that the mathematically astute curious types among you are now busy calculating my pay. Have fun. I’d just appreciate it if you didn’t spread the number around. Make anyone who wants to know go to the effort of punching a few digits into their calculators. And looking up the federal and state withholding percentages. And a few other little deductions that I’ll leave as exercises for the nosy.

With all the approximations I’ve included, you can call it three-quarters of an hour without straining the bounds of mathematics.

Why would I bother with all that math, other than to justify thirteen years of data collection? Well, it turns out that driving is two dollars cheaper than taking the bus. That says more about the cost of public transportation than anything else, but that’s a subject for another time.

More importantly, knowing the cost difference allows me to feel a little better about choosing convenience over saving the environment.

Cuddle Buddies

Just a brief post today, for reasons.

But I had promised to try and post video of Lefty and Rufus indulging in mutual grooming. And I do keep my promises.

One has to admire Rufus’ patience with his companion.

The Fellows are a bit distant, I’m afraid. No zoom on the camera. So, to make up for that, here’s a snippet of them sharing the mushroom condo, at the other end of the camera’s range.

For some value of “sharing” anyway.

West Coast Ragtime Festival Thoughts

A quick housekeeping note: there will be no blog post on Thursday. I intend to sleep late, gorge myself on turkey and the usual trimmings, swill far too much crockpot spiced cider, and not even think about writing. Normal service will resume on Friday.

That said…

The West Coast Ragtime Festival was excellent, despite–or perhaps in spite of–the looming clouds of smoke from the Camp Fire, a mere hour’s drive north. Not, I hasten to add, that anyone ignored the fire and its effects. The music was good, the festival seemed better organized than last year, and the hotel staff was on the ball. (As any regular convention-goer in any field can tell you, the facility staff can make or break a convention.)

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Danny Coots–that’s him just to the left of center, behind the largely-invisible drum kit–is…uh…hang on. Am I the only one who sees that? Wait, let me run the image through some TV-style computer enhancement.

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The Sacramento Marriott Rancho Cordova: come for the music, stay to watch the performers eaten by giant lizard-monsters…

Ahem. As I was saying, Danny Coots must be the hardest-working performer in ragtime today. I swear he not only did all of his own sets, but sat in on every other set all weekend. And yes, I’m well aware that means he had to be in three at once. Maybe he’s triplets. Or clones.

Excellent drummer. Makes anyone he plays with at least twice as good. Buy his records: he’s gotta feed all three of himself.

Speaking of the hotel, questionable choices in décor aside, they did an excellent job of hosting, not only the festival, but the residents of an assisted living facility burned out of Paradise. (And parenthetical kudos to the kind donor who made it possible for the displaced folks to attend the festival.) That’s what people need right now, not snide comments about forest management.

And, on a related note, Diego Bustamante, also a resident of Paradise, did several beautiful sets. If he can play that well at nineteen, in the face of such disaster, he’s going to be a talent to watch over the next few decades.

Also, be on the watch for “Titanic: A Musical Journey”. Contrary to modern popular belief, Celine Dion was not on the Titanic. Nor was the music heard on the film’s soundtrack typical of what was actually played at the time. Barbara Chronowski’s production–featuring Adam Swanson on the piano–aims to correct the record, and largely succeeds. I can’t imagine the two performances over the weekend will be the only ones.

Not Insomniac

“Cats are rather delicate creatures and they are subject to a good many ailments, but I never heard of one who suffered from insomnia.” ― Joseph Wood Krutch

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Proper sleep habits are, of course, of vital importance in the feline world. Mind you, the rules of proper sleep can be summarized as “There’s no such thing as too much sleep” without losing any important details.

Kokoro is the most dedicated sleeper in the house. Perhaps it’s natural inclination, or maybe just that, being the oldest, she’s had more time to develop her sleep skills. Certainly, a proper nose-tuck takes both natural talent and dedicated practice.

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‘Nuki, on the other paw, is rather careless about how he sleeps. He frequently leaves body parts dangling.

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Much, it should be noted, to Rufus’ complete lack of interest. “Not my problem if he wakes up with his tail all pins and needles.”

But the results can be entertaining to other onlookers.

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In this household, though, uninterrupted sleep is a rare luxury. And ‘Nuki, bless his thuggish little heart, is often the cause of others’ rude awakenings.

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Customer Dissatisfaction

We’ve officially become cord-cutters.

No, we haven’t dropped our land line. Cell service around here has improved over the past few years, but it’s still spotty enough that we’re not ready to depend only on that.

TV, though, is another matter. Strictly speaking, we haven’t been corded in more than a decade: we’ve been getting our television service from Dish. And, quite honestly, we’ve been happy with the service–and the customer service. Our only complaint has been with the cost; the add-on fees for equipment rental, insurance, and a bunch of things I couldn’t begin to explain came to almost as much as the actual service.

A couple of months ago, we decided that the amount of TV we watched wasn’t worth the amount we were paying, so we switched to Sling. I’ll have more to say about Sling another day; for the moment, I’ll just note that we’re okay with the decision. Note, by the way, that Sling is owned by Dish; we didn’t change corporate overlords.

What I do want to talk about is the process of canceling the satellite service, because it’s an impressive example of what I’m calling “Customer Retention by Intimidation”.

The saga begins with a phone call to Dish Customer Service. You can’t cancel online. There’s no way to deselect all of the programming packages on your account, and the only pages on the website I could find regarding service cancellation were related to moving to a new house, i.e. canceling at one location and starting at a new one.

Nor does the phone menu have a choice for cancellation. So I chose the “other” option and wound up talking to a gent who identified himself as Anthony. He did not, by the way, have an Indian accent, and his word choices when he went off-script suggested American English was his native language.

When I explained that I wanted to cancel the service because I wasn’t watching enough TV to justify the price, he immediately offered me a “customer retention” package at half the cost. Of course, the additional fees wouldn’t have changed, so it would only have represented a twenty-five percent reduction in the total cost. It also would have trimmed my channels by two-thirds, and the cuts would have included the Giants’ games. I turned down the offer.

The next offer was for a fifteen dollar a month discount for two years. That would have let us keep the ballgames, but we would have saved even less money. No thanks.

Somewhere around that point, I mentioned that I was moving to “your Sling subsidiary”. That got me an obviously scripted warning that net neutrality was doomed and I might not be so happy with Sling when my ISP started charging me more. Which was, honestly, something we considered, but I told Anthony I’d worry about it if and when.

We were about fifteen minutes into the call, and I said, “Look, I’m not going to change my mind. Go ahead and check off all the boxes showing you tried to convince me, and if anyone asks, I’ll swear you made the offers, okay?”

Either Anthony was a bored as I was, or he’d run out of inducements, because he moved on to the mechanical details of canceling the service. He reminded me that the hardware was leased, and I’d have to ship it all back. “We’ll send you boxes. It’ll take seven to ten days and you’ll get an email when they go out.” And then he walked me through what needed to be sent back–including something he called the “LNBF”. That, it turns out, is part of the roof-mounted equipment.

“Climbing on the roof isn’t part of my skill set,” I said.

“Fair enough. I’ll see if my supervisor will waive that return,” he replied and put me on hold for five minutes. When he came back, he said the supervisor had agreed. Hooray.

After again offering me the fifteen dollar discount, Anthony processed the cancellation, told me what the final bill would be, and reminded me again that if I didn’t return the equipment within thirty days, they’d charge me several hundred dollars. “Oh, and when you ship it, let us know–just give us the last four digits of the tracking number–and we’ll credit you for the return charges.”

Total time of call, thirty-eight minutes. Five on hold while Anthony spoke to the supervisor, about the same covering the equipment return process, two minutes for the net neutrality warning, and the rest trying to persuade me to accept one of the retention offers.

Half an hour later, I got an email telling me the service “will be cancelled effective” that day and reminding me about the return fee I’d just been charged. I checked, and the service had already been shut off.

The next day I got a call from Dish Customer Retention. I spent fifteen minutes assuring the caller that yes, Anthony had offered me the customer retention package and the two-year discount, and that yes, I was still determined to leave. The call ended with another warning about the multi-hundred dollar charge I’d be facing if I didn’t return their gear within thirty days.

A few minutes later, I got an email asking me to take a customer service survey about my talk with Anthony.

The next day, I got a follow-up email, again asking me to rate Anthony’s performance.

A week after the initial call, I got yet another email informing me that “You have disconnected” the service and “A return kit…will be shipped” and that I had to return “your equipment”* “within the next 30 days” or be charged. Note that “will”. A week after the service was turned off, they still hadn’t sent the box. When exactly did the thirty days start: when I canceled, when they said the box would be shipped, when they actually shipped it, or when UPS delivered it? I still don’t know.

* If it’s my equipment, why are they demanding I return it? And why were they charging me rental fees for more than a decade if it was mine? Poor wording by some corporate flunky.

Included in the box was a letter assuring me Dish was “willing to do ALMOST ANYTHING to get you back.” Apparently, “almost anything” means “give you the same fifteen dollar a month discount you’ve already turned down three times”.

Anthony had said the box would arrive in seven to ten days, and, sure enough, they showed up ten days after I spoke to him. I loaded the equipment and took the box down to UPS the next day. Let them worry about the thirty day deadline.

Then came the fun of letting Dish know I’d shipped “my” equipment. Dish Customer Service does not have an email address. All of the emails I’d gotten were from accounts that don’t accept incoming mail. I wasn’t going to call and get stuck with another round of discount offers. I finally used the online chat function.

Marlon seemed puzzled about what I wanted, and warned me that I needed to return the equipment within thirty days. To his credit, he didn’t try to sell me on the discount offer, and once I explained that I’d already shipped the equipment, he processed the credit for the return fee. “It’ll take seven business days to get to your credit card company.”

The next day and the day after that, I got emails asking me to take the customer satisfaction survey for my “experience” with Marlon.

Two days after the last email–four days after I spoke to Marlon–I got an automated call from Dish telling me the credit had been processed and to allow five business days for it to get to my bank. (It took four calendar days to get to the bank and be posted to my account. Clearly my credit card company is more efficient than Dish believed possible.)

This kind of foot-dragging, intimidation, and relentless hounding must work. They wouldn’t spend money doing it if it didn’t work.

And the tactic is spreading. Case in point: we get a daily call from the American Red Cross asking for blood, money, or both. We’ve told them repeatedly that we’re not going to donate and asked them multiple times to stop calling, but the calls continue.

It’s counter-intuitive that you might be able to annoy people into donating time, flesh, and funds, but again, it must work, because they wouldn’t keep paying if it didn’t.

I’d start a campaign against such annoyance tactics, but how would I fund it? Repeatedly call people until they toss me money to make me go away?

Odd Couple

Tuxie and MM have, for the most part, arrived at a workable arrangement. There’s always some jockeying for position when the food bowls go down, but after a minute or so, they settle down to the serious business of eating.
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To be quite honest, we’ve arrived at the point where they spend more time shoving each other aside to get petted before they eat.
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It’s a bit awkward, but quite endearingly cute.

SAST 10: Feline Edition

It’s been a busy week in the feline world, so we’ll hit the highlights in a Very Special Edition of Short Attention Span Theater.

20-1For those among us who love toe beans, there are fewer cuter than ‘Nuki’s. They’re amazingly soft and delicate looking; quite the contrast to his thuggish personality.

20-2Kokoro and Sachiko are far from the closest of friends, but when the weather turns unexpectedly cold, they manage to share a heat vent in relative tranquility. Note that Sachiko is kind enough to place a paw on the dome to ensure it doesn’t slip out of place. Kokoro, as is her wont, returns the favor by not alerting her junior to the fact that it’s warmer in front of the dome than behind it.

20-3Rufus has been in one of his exploratory moods this week. And he’s slowly getting more comfortable being around the other cats. Except ‘Nuki, of course. The Two Roos spent an hour or so hanging out on the stairs together–a definite first.

20-4And there’s action outside as well. Only a meezer would choose to sleep on a piece of old school, hard plastic Astroturf. Maybe MM was guarding the water bowl. Maybe she just didn’t want to get dirt on her fur. Regardless, it’s more proof–not that any was needed–that meezers are weird.

Oh, Right

Post? What? Oh, yeah, it is Thursday, isn’t it?

Sorry. I’m about to send the main character of my current Work in Progress–let’s call them “Peeby”–off on a quest straight out of their least favorite fairy tales.

After I finish screwing up their life again, just as they thought they was getting it under control*.

* No, I’m still not happy about “they/them” as a singular pronoun, but Peeby insisted. Darn uppity characters.

Because that’s what writers do. See, there’s a school of writing that says when you don’t know what happens next, ask yourself “What’s the worst thing that could happen?” and then do it. I don’t usually follow that advice literally, but this time I am. It’s amazingly cathartic, but I suspect it’s taking me down several paths that’ll get cut in the next draft.

But I digress.

Anyway, Peeby’s about to go on a quest. Literally. One of those “Find these things, and I’ll make you ruler of the world,” deals. Of course, they is all “I don’t care what that damned song says, I don’t want to rule the world.” But they doesn’t have a choice because, hey, “worst thing,” right?

The problem with quests, though, is they need an object. Or, in this case, a set of objects. Three to be precise.

Why three? Well, as I’ve said before, I generally subscribe to the “Rule of Three” in my work. And in this case, it makes sense in the context of the story because–well, I’ll save that for another time.

I’ve got three targets for Peeby, but at the moment it’s a Three Bears’ Porridge set of objects. One is just right, but one is more video game than fairy tale, and one is clichéd and boring.

I can work with the video game one. In context, it even makes some sense.

But boring is death and cliché is eternal damnation.

The destination shapes the journey–very literally in the case of a fairy tale quest. I can’t send poor Peeby off on a quest for something that’s going to get written out of the book before they finds it. I need a replacement before they sets out, and so I’ve been on an extended ramble around the Web in search of a quest object.

Yes, I’m fully aware of how meta that is. Questing for a quest. Ha ha.

And that’s why I’d forgotten it was Thursday, and thus had to subject you to my ramblings on the creative process.

It’s all Peeby’s fault for not wanting to rule the world.

A Cold Truth

While I’m thinking of it–I just got back from the store–Saturday is Ice Cream for Breakfast Day.

As TFoAHK reminds us, this holiday is not a corporate invention. There’s no mascot, no gifts to wrap*, and you need not give a single cent to our corporate overlords**.

* Do not hang tubs of ice cream beside the fireplace unless you like cleaning up sticky messes.

** I’m too lazy to make my own, hence the aforementioned trip to the grocery store (Tillamook Mountain Huckleberry, if you’re curious). But don’t let my laziness prevent you from digging out the ol’ churn.

Even better, ICfB Day is an international celebration, not something confined to the United States, or even the North American continent. Nearly everybody loves ice cream, so observing the occasion can only bring us all closer together. Imagine how much calmer the country would be next week if Robert Mueller and Donald Trump shared a Saturday morning sundae.

Okay, maybe that’s a little optimistic. But it can’t make their relationship any worse–at least not as long as nobody hogs the hot fudge.

Anyway, before you start leaving me nasty notes about good nutrition in the comments, I’m well aware of the issue. And, to preempt the comments from the other side, I’m also aware that the much-touted “ice cream for breakfast” study has been roundly debunked. (If you missed it, the study supposedly showed that eating ice cream for breakfast improved alertness and mental performance. What it actually showed–if it was even performed; there’s some doubt about that–was that eating anything for breakfast wakes you up and helps you think. So don’t skip breakfast, but don’t feel obligated to eat ice cream. Except for Saturday.)

No, eating ice cream for breakfast isn’t the greatest thing you can do for your body. Not even in the top ten. But unless you’ve got an overriding medical issue that requires you to avoid ice cream under any circumstances, a scoop for breakfast once a year isn’t going to do you any significant damage.

Live it up. Give yourself a treat. Cone optional, because I’m too chill right now for an argument over cake versus sugar versus waffle.

Here We Go Again

A quick question before I get into the main post. This is directed to those of you who have rear window wipers on your cars.

See, we had our first rain of the year yesterday, and noticed that only one driver out of a couple of dozen had turned on their rear window wipers.

So the question is, why not? Do the rear wipers not work? Do you forget they’re there? Do you just not care you can’t see anything in your rearview mirror? (The way many people change lanes these days makes me wonder if they even have rearview mirrors.)

Or is there an explanation I haven’t thought of?

Moving on.

Here we go again. The latest call for technology to rethink the book comes from David Pierce over at Wired. He might charge me with oversimplification, but I’m not seeing anything in his piece that differs from any of the “print is boring, we need to jazz it up” opinions we’ve gotten since the dawn of ebooks.

Mr. Pierce has a few more examples than we’ve seen before, because people keep experimenting, but it’s still the same idea: “books don’t have to consist only of hundreds of pages set in a row.”

Let’s skip the question of what a “book” is. Whether you consider something delivered as a series of tweets, something that allows readers to text with the characters, or something that comes with a musical soundtrack to be a book is beside the point. And yes, I’m including audiobooks as “maybe they’re books, maybe they’re not” here because they’re one of the earliest and most enduring approaches to “jazzing up the book”.

The critical problem with the idea of evolving the book is that people want books to remain books. Mr. Pierce himself points out that what made the Kindle popular was its replication of the reading experience. No pop-ups, no advertisements, no distractions from the act of moving the writer’s words into the reader’s brain. As a reader, you get to choose when to read, where to read, how fast to read, and how you react to what you read.

It’s about control. The more multimedia features you add to a “book,” the more you take control of the experience away from the reader. Add pictures, and you control the reader’s mental image. Add audio and video and you increase that control. Constrain the delivery options, and you limit the ability to decide where and when to read.

I have no problem with experiments in new ways of delivering stories–provided they don’t turn into advertisements–but any claim that such experiments will lead to the replacement of books-as-we-know-them should be regarded with great dubiety.

What I do see happening with books is that publishers will find ways to increase the reader’s control–and successful publishers will use those techniques.

A case in point: I recently purchased an ebook collection of short stories, the complete set of stories about a single character. In the foreword, the author notes that, while she would prefer people to read them in the order they were written, she recognizes that many people would prefer them in order of their internal chronology.

In a printed book, the author and editor would get to decide. If the reader prefers the other option, it means tedious flipping back to the table of contents, then flipping forward to the next story. But an ebook can be built to support both options. In this case, turning the pages as usual gives the “as written” story order, but at the end of each story there’s a link to go directly to the next story in internal chronological order. Either way, it’s a single click/tap/page turn to go to next story. At the reader’s discretion.

Convenience features, ideas to make the act of reading as we already know it more pleasant, are the future of books. Multimedia, text messages, and other bolt-on features are the future of something else.