Wednesday, April 19, 2006

A Tech Funny

I had a real belly laugh last night. My friend calls me up, says his TV has a flat line running horizontally across the middle of the screen. "You're lacking vertical deflection", I said, in my best technical know-it-all voice. It's a not-so-common symptom anymore, my old TV shop used to pay the rent on such repairs. It has one of two causes. One is electronic, the other a physical "open" in a circuit - like a bad solder connection. So I says, "Smack it."
"Hit it!"
"How hard?"
"Well, not hard enough to knock it off the table, but hard enough." Count 1, 2,
"Hey! It worked!"
"See, you can be a technician, too."
I told him that it would probably happen again, till we could get it fixed.
It's probably a paper-thin solder connection on his printed circuit board that has broken with the repeated heating and cooling of the TV. We should be able to find it, and all will be well with the world, for a while.
It made my day to help a friend, especially in such a simple and fun way. I hung up and just guffawed.
"Technical Support, this is Popeye, can I help you?" "Augh-ag-ag-ag-ag-awwww."

I love the Internet, hate customer service

I've had two experiences, this week, that I think bear repeating. The first one involves a Kodak camera given to me on Sunday. It wasn't working - camera powers up, all of the functions work, with the small exception that it takes no pictures - no preview from the lens, either. I started at Kodak's site, and it's troubleshooting guide led me toward a fill-in form that I wasn't ready to complete, just yet. I then started Google-ing the model number, and found a wealth of information. I found literally hundreds of comments from owners, detailing two obvious flaws in the camera (my symptom is one of them). Nearly all of these cameras quit after about 2.5 years of use (I'm pretty sure that that's how old this camera is), and, if I were to fill out that form on Kodak's site, they would offer me a lesser model camera in exchange for returning this one, oh, and send them $125. Pretty sure that's not going to happen. I'd be livid, as many of these posters are, if I'd paid between $300-400 for this camera. Kodak has lost a lot of business and reputation from this one.
Yesterday, I downloaded an album, using software I'd used before. Eventually. What happened was this. I found the album, clicked on "buy", and charged my account. Then the download wouldn't happen - kept getting an error message. When I clicked on the link to explain the error message, a screenful of information appeared, with a link to technical support and a specific error message. Problem was, this screen would appear, then refresh back to the store. Quitting, restarting, and repeating this event 2-3 times, I eventually had to use Ctl-Print Screen to capture the info and paste it into Word in order for me to read it. It's now been about an hour. Unable to access the tech service link on the page, I found an email address and posted a detailed message with account info, album and artist, answered their system questions, and included the error message provided. Then, just for kicks, I Googled the error message directly, just put it straight in. I found several forums that detailed the same problem, and a solution (the problem was a corrupted file in Windows XP, renaming it fixed the problem). Five minutes later, the album was on my drive, and CD's burning. This morning, I received a response from their tech support (I'd been warned on the forums that this could take 2-5 days, so I was pleasantly surprised). The email politely asked me for more information. What's noteworthy is that each bit of information asked for was provided in the copy of my email attached to the bottom of his response! I had to look, twice, I believe the operative word is incredulous.
I thanked him for his prompt response, detailed my solution, and where and how quickly I had found it, and went on my merry way.
The first example is of corporate incompetence, from design to their response to what is obviously a defective product. The second one is merely bureaucratic failure - failure to list a set of fixes to error messages for common errors. Yes, it's probably more complex than that and, yes, I'm more willing than the average nancy to rename files and such, but still. The fact remains that I was able to find more timely, accurate information from forums than I did from the companies, themselves. It is unfortunately one of the bittersweet realities of the information age.

What it's like, too

One of my online friends posted this on her blog. I think it's great. And much "shinier" than most of my posts.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Pinewood Derby Soapbox

I hate Cub Scouts
I hate Cub Scouts
I hate Cub Scouts
I hate Cub Scouts
I want to be clear.
Today’s subject is Pinewood Derby – or “what would a car made by a 6-10 year old really look like?”
The conversation at my house, for three years, has gone something like this (condensed):
“You know, the race is two weeks away, you need to start thinking about a design for your car.”
“I know.”
“Would you like some help?”
“I don’t know.”
“Sam, we have a week until the race, have you picked out a design yet?”
“We’re running out of time.”
“What about this one?”
“I don’t know.”
“Or this one?”
“I don’t know - I guess so.”
Of course the shapes and designs are spawned and made for BOY SCOUTS with (assumedly) some dexterity and ability to use tools that no sane parent would put in the hands of someone under 10 years of age. I negotiate a design, cut it out, and promptly break off one corner while working with it. Glued back together, the next day:
“OK, here’s the shape, how do you want to paint it?”
“I don’t know.”
“Have you thought about it”
“I guess so. Not really.”
“What about red, maybe with a stripe?”
He does pick out a blue stripe and decides to put it down the middle of the car. Painting proceeds, this year he’s actually capable of squeezing the spray paint nozzle, and does a fine job of painting the car. Dad kinda messes up the finish, late in the night before the weigh-in (more on that, later) in the toaster oven trying to hurry it along. One of the wheels in the kit provided is goofed up, so Dad pulls the wheels and axles off last year’s car, sparing the time needed to de-burr and polish them (actually nails, but they are the only sanctioned axles allowed). There are pre-cut grooves in the bottom of the car provided, and three of these break while Sam carefully nails them into place. Hot Glue Gun time. Sam picks his Lego driver, and weights are screwed and glued into place. We make our way to the weigh-in with a couple of hours to spare. The car gets weighed, we modify to reach total weight ( a cup holder for the driver), passes inspection with a small dispute over length, and is quarantined until race time (preventing last-minute, unauthorized modifications by eager kids – right). I’m feelin’ all warm and fuzzy about the whole thing, oh, yeah.

Two weeks of rain delay. I get a call on a Tuesday, where I’m asked (and agree) to meet up and assist with the track set-up at 0730 Saturday morning. Turns out, we go to Disneyland on Friday, bedtime is approximately 0230, Saturday morning. Oh joy, unspeakable and full of glory (for all of you Nazarenes out there). One of my tasks is to take a tube of graphite, and lubricate all of the axles and wheels for the 26 cars in the impound tubs – one axle at a time. I’m working my way through them, when I spot a car with genuine AXLES, not the nails that are sanctioned to hold the wheels in place. I show this to the other fathers there, and move on. In my later absence, the car is allowed to run anyway. What a great message to teach the leaders of tomorrow.
I go back to the house to retrieve Sam at 0850, thinking the races start at 0930. We arrive at 0920 to find them well underway, having begun at 0900. Sam’s car has been run once for him, and he misses his only chance to see it win a race. The races proceed, and a few of the cars actually bear witness that a kid might have worked on one or two of them. Most do not. Sam loses his next two races, actually to two cars that finished in the top 5. He’s not happy about it, but the good news is that he’s not really that unhappy about it. I’m fortunately not one of the Dads whose kid got beaten by the illegal car, and I’m too tired to really make a stink about it (here, this issue’s not dead with me yet). Not unexpectedly, it’s me and the Den leader left to take the track apart and put it in his truck at the end. We head home to lunch and a nap, at least for me.
Oh, and the car that won? It came in second, last year. Ran the same car this year, same paint, same decals. At least that poor sucker has to spend another whole day this month at the Council races, it should make up for the time he didn’t spend putting one together. Ironies abound. Congratulations.
Call me a whiner. Go ahead. Finished?
This is an ill-conceived activity for these young boys. I am fully behind something that Sam can make/do/participate in with my help, but this is a ridiculous example of transposing something from a successful program to an unsuccessful one. The rules and restrictions are obviously there to promote fairness, but are also recognition that this organization committed to character-building has some real characters in it. To then allow what is clearly cheating to occur just boggles my mind. I clearly don’t see the point. It’s been 3 years of frustration for me; this year’s event left me tired, disillusioned, and pretty much unwilling to do it again. Of course, if Sam stays with Scouting, I only have 9 more cars to make.Make that 3, perhaps none. I’m growing fonder of this one, every day.

Monday, April 03, 2006

A Day At Disneyland

Vicky and I used to spend a fair amount of our time in comedy clubs, back when they were more popular, and we had no children. One night, the headliner was Mike Binder, who has (mercifully for both him and the public at large) moved on to become a writer, producer, and director. Mr. Binder, never hilarious, was having a rough night, and I remember being almost relieved when he ended his act. As the "headliner", he returned for an encore. What came next has, of course, solidified the title of this post in my mind forever.
Mike returned to do a bit of schtick that had always generated a fair amount of laughter, even from me the first 3-4 times I'd seen it. The gag is simple: He announces "I would now like to do for you - "A Day At Disneyland". He would then pantomime standing in line - you know, walk a little, wait a little, make a U turn, walk a little. . .
What Mr. B failed to realize was that the majority of people at the Comedy Store that night had already seen it 3-4 times. He does the first little shuffle - and then someone in the audience heckles him (with perfect timing, I might add) with "ALL HE'S GONNA DO IS WAIT IN LINE!". The crowd erupted into the loudest laughter of the night, Mike waved, and left the stage. Game Over.

We went to Disneyland last week. The most noteworthy element of this day was that nothing happened. Just about everything went as it should have, which is a rarity in this world of overpopulation and inflated expectations. I think the worst thing was that Pirates of the Caribbean was closed; in the grand scheme of things, this was minor, indeed.
The weather was perfect. We have had rain, off and on, before and since. Waiting in line at The Magic Kingdom can be a hot and boring experience. It was sunny, but with a lovely breeze, a perfect Anaheim day.
Everyone was healthy and in a good mood, even Dad. Emma was well-behaved all day; she fell asleep at about 7:30 pm, even though it meant that she was up and ready to roll at 5:30 the next morning, she wasn't a tired whiner at the park.
No major clothing or equipment malfunctions. No car trouble, no diarreah explosions, and we rode Splash Mountain last, and old Grumpy hardly got wet at all.
We got to see everything we came to see. Not always easy.
We had a good experience with something new. The last time we were at Disneyland, it was a hot day, and Emma, barely 5, was neither accustomed to waiting in line or cooperating. By mid-afternoon, we were all exhausted and unhappy with wrestling each other onto and off of rides. The ride operator at Peter Pan suggested that we get a "special needs" pass. By then, it was really too late. This time, with a little apprehension, I took Emma and we went to the Customer Service desk (at City Hall) and I explained the situation. What they did was give me a pass that stated that Emma's stroller was essentially a wheelchair. What this meant, mainly, was that we could keep her in the stroller, in line, until such time as we'd need to bypass the tighter spaces that a wheelchair couldn't get through. On the older rides, this meant skipping some of the line. Sometimes, these lines were just as long with folks in wheelchairs lined up to be fit in - it reminded me of when "we" were pregnant - suddenly there's pregnant people all over the place where you never noticed them before (hmm). On the newer rides, it meant being able to keep her in the stroller until the last minute, then a little help on and off of the ride. The difference between this experience and the last was wonderful. We didn't take advantage of it on every ride, and it was nice to feel free to do so. I expected some condescending or even snotty treatment from some operators or others (you know, always looking on the bright side), there was none - I felt like most of them were glad to see us, nearly all of them treated us exceptionally well.
Space Mountain is cool. Just ask Sam. If you haven't been on it lately, it's 3X faster, and darker, and funner.
It was a good day. We stayed until 11 pm or so, and got home about 2. The Pinewood Derby, the next morning at 7:30, was a different story, but was overshadowed by the afterglow of a fine "Day at Disneyland".