SAST 15

Some days a Short Attention Span Theater is the only option.

The West Coast Ragtime Festival is this weekend. Not much notice, I realize, but stuff happened. Nothing worthy of a story, unfortunately.

It looks like a good group of performers are on the schedule this year. There are several young players, and there are plenty of new faces among the adult performers I’m already familiar with.

The usual caveats about the unexpected apply, including the expected unexpected–this is California, Home of the Majestic PG&E Planned Power Outage and the Diabolical Unplanned Forest Fire–but I expect to be there all day Saturday and most of the day Sunday.

If you’re in the Sacramento area, drop by and say hello. Or, better yet, drop by and listen to some good music. Much more entertaining than hanging out with me*.

* Your Mileage May Vary, of course, but I feel obligated to exercise a little modesty, since the festival wasn’t organized to showcase my talents.

Moving on.

After some work-related delays and distractions and some purely writerly procrastination, I began work on the third draft of Demirep recently.

Yesterday, I reworked somewhere north of 5,000 words. I’ve always said that rewriting is faster and easier than writing* and Draft Three is the easiest one in my usual process. Even so, that’s a lot of words in one go, and it gives me hope that the book is on the right track.

* In some ways, it’s more fun, too. Finding the perfect word instead of the one that’s almost right is the good kind of challenge.

Draft Three is usually the one that goes to beta readers. That’s the real acid test for any book, of course: how does it resonate with people who weren’t involved in its conception? Will I be asking for beta readers? Probably. But not yet. This draft is still in the early stages, and I may yet decide it needs a major change of direction. Stay tuned.

Moving on again, this time to something that’s not all about me.

Perhaps you’ve heard that Apple just announced a line of 16 inch MacBook Pro notebooks.

The timing is odd. MacBook Pros are designed for a small group of professionals–tech, video, and other such industries that need big power on the go–not the general consumer market. There’s no real need to launch the line during the holiday season. Wouldn’t it have made more sense to hold off until next month and launch them alongside the new Mac Pro workstation? Let people spend their Christmas gift money on the consumer devices and then bring out the pro goodies. Aside from those people buying them in pallet loads for businesses, almost anyone buying any Pro product from Apple is going to be financing the purchase, so they don’t need that holiday cash in hand, right?

But then, I’m clearly not a marketing expert. I’m sure Apple has plenty of expertise in that area and neither wants nor needs my advice.

In any case, new MacBook Pros look like great machines. Apple’s usual premium pricing applies, but still, $2800 will buy you a lot of computer. If you’re considering getting one, though, make sure your budget includes a wheeled computer case. Four pounds doesn’t sound like much, but schlepping it around for ten hours a day (Apple claims a ten or eleven hour battery life; these machines aren’t designed for a nine-to-five workday) will put a serious dent in your shoulder.

And finally…

Speaking of those planned blackouts for fire prevention, we’ve been lucky so far.

I’m probably jinxing us by saying this, but the first three blackouts all missed us. In at least one case, it was only by a few blocks, but blackouts are not one of those situations like horseshoes and hand grenades where “close” counts.

There’s a movement afoot to force PG&E to bury all of its power lines. The reasoning is that underground lines don’t cause fires, so there’s no need to shut off the power during high winds. That may be true–as far as I can tell, we don’t have data showing complete protection–but it’s not a total fix for all of PG&E’s woes.

Case in point: while we’ve avoided the planned shutoffs, we had an unplanned outage a couple of weeks ago thanks to a blown high tension line. An underground line.

We’re now in Day Six of PG&E digging up our street and sidewalk to get access to the line and, based on a conversation with some of the workers, the job is going to stretch into December and include at least one planned outage.

Burying the lines may make them safer–though, since this is California, let’s not forget about earth movements, both slides and quakes–but it does make them harder to repair.

And there are secondary effects of outages. Ones that apply regardless of whether a protracted blackout is planned or unplanned. How many stories have we heard recently about fires and deaths caused by improperly maintained or incorrectly used emergency generators?

Before we spend decades and billions of dollars burying power lines, let’s spend a bit of time considering all the implications and hidden costs, financial and otherwise.

WQTS 06

This post is a little bit later than usual, thanks to Mother Nature.

It’s raining here in the Bay Area. Despite the way our three-year drought has been monopolizing the media’s attention, the mere fact of rain isn’t really newsworthy. This is, however, a major storm*. We’ve had a couple of days of warnings and–all joking aside, perfectly justified–sandbag distributions.

* By local standards, naturally. Those of you in hurricane and monsoon zones may snicker derisively. I also grant permission for those of you in snow zones to laugh hysterically.

And, Pacific Gas & Electric workers have been making the rounds, trimming branches that might bring down power lines, and preparing as best they can to handle the inevitable outages.

Before I start discussing the failures here–and they go beyond QA–I want to be totally clear that I’m not dissing PG&E’s field employees. They do a vitally-necessary job that carries a high level of risk even in the best circumstances. Kudos to them.

But.

At 7:59, I got home from driving Maggie to BART. This had nothing to do with the weather; I drive her most Thursdays; that it means I’m not trapped at home if the storm knocks out the power is purely a bonus feature. I pulled out my phone and started to send her an e-mail assuring her that I had made it home in one piece. At 8:02, while I was still writing, the power went out.

I was a little surprised it had stayed on as long as it had. I finished the e-mail, sent it off, and made the rounds of the house, shutting off computers (yes, we do have multiple UPSes; doesn’t everyone?) At 8:10, I called PG&E’s automated outage line. This is a voice-recognition system. None of that old-fashioned business of punching numbers on the phone.

The first thing the system does is ask if you’re calling to report a dangerous situation, such as a downed line. I said “no,” and the computer played a pre-recorded message extolling the virtues of using the Web to report outages. Finally it asked “Are you reporting an outage?” I assured the friendly silicon that was exactly what I wished to do. It matched my phone number to billing records, asked me to confirm my address–it was correct–and then informed me that there was not a known outage in my area.

That was the first sign of trouble. I’ve never been the first person to report an outage, even when I’ve called immediately after the lights went out. By the ten minute mark, there’s no way I’m the first. So, Failure Number One: either the design of the system is faulty, in that it does not inform users when there’s a problem retrieving outage data, or there was a QA failure, and the error detection routines were inadequately tested.

But, OK, fine. I assured the computer that my power was out and I wanted to file an outage report. “OK,” said my electronic buddy, “is this a complete outage or a partial outage?”

“Complete,” I replied.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t understand that. Please say either ‘complete outage’ or ‘partial outage’.” Failure Number Two, and I put this one squarely on the design team. Why should I have to say “outage”? The important–and distinctive–information is the first word.

“Complete outage,” I said, willing to go along with the joke.

“Please hold,” PG&E’s electronic idiot said. A moment later, I heard a new voice.

“Hello, this is [name withheld to protect the innocent] in Sacramento. Do you want to get the status of an outage?” Failures Three and Four. Design flaw: I was not informed that I was being transferred to a human operator. Design or QA flaw: Said human operator was not alerted that the system had failed while taking an outage report.

NWTPtI was very polite and helpful. The first piece of information she asked for was my address. Failure Five–the automated system had correctly identified me; my account information should have been transferred along with my call. Again, this could be either a design or QA failure.

“There are three hundred forty six people affected by an outage in your area. There is no estimated time for the return of power yet, but a worker has been dispatched,” NWTPtI informed me, and then asked if I would like to be notified when an estimate was available and again when power was restored, and offered me a choice between text message or automated phone call.

I chose the latter, gave her a few more pieces of standard information*, and we concluded the call.

* Including the closest cross street. Shouldn’t that come from a geographical database as soon as she entered my address? I could call this another design failure, but why pile on? After all, it could have been some kind of perverse validation that I wasn’t pranking PG&E.

At 8:47, the power came back on. At 9:59–more than an hour later–I got an automated call from PG&E informing me that my power had been restored at 8:50. I’ll give ’em a pass on the time discrepancy; three minutes is within reasonable rounding error. Hell, I won’t even ding them for the delay in calling. It would be unreasonable to expect them to have enough lines to contact thousands of customers in real time.

But there’s still Failure Number Six: I’m still waiting for the call with the estimated time to make the repair. This one I’m throwing at QA. Either a policy change was made and nobody caught the resulting error in NWTPtI’s script, or software QA missed at least one condition under which a call wouldn’t be made.

The bottom line is that the power is on. That’s far more important than letting me know how long it’s going to take–I’d rather sit in illuminated ignorance than enlightened darkness–but really, PG&E, much as I respect your field workers, I’ve lost quite a bit of respect for your back office personnel.