Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Noteworthy Customer Service

Everyone loves great customer service, especially me. It's an integrity issue and it's one of my pet peeves.

I've had my Accord for more than a decade. Recently, the factory installed GPS nav system was on the fritz. Honda offered to repair my system for a couple thousand dollars, which is steep considering it's merely the GPS DVD that needed to be fixed.

Following a recommendation from a local business, I brought my car into La Jolla Audio. I'm happy to say that everything the rep, Gary, at the shop told me was wrong.

First, he told me it would cost $800 if he could repair it. But, if he had to send it out it would be closer to $1,000. After spending the day trouble shooting it, he told me that he'd have to send it out; but it would still only cost $800 because the repair prices had dropped.

Second, he told me that it typically takes at least two weeks to repair the DVD player. He was also wrong about that. Six days later, he called me back to say that he'd received the repaired DVD player and it was ready to be installed.

As soon as I hung up the phone I drove over to La Jolla Audio. He told me that it would take about an hour to install and program the repaired unit. It turns out that was wrong, too – it only took 45 minutes. Very refreshing.

I could have done the work myself for about $300, but it was worth it to have an expert do it. It might be easy to reason that his process was planned, but that wasn't the case.  He gave me his best estimates not based on the soonest the repairs could be made, but rather the average, with a couple possible delays thrown. That's the hallmark of excellent customer service.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Ideal Online Scam?

I think I've encountered the perfect online scam; or, at least I can now envision how it would work.

Over the past ten years, I've blogged a few times about my experiences in junior high school with lasers and holography. A few years ago, I read about Wicked Lasers on TechCrunch. The diode lasers they sell are spectacularly powerful – more than a thousand times more powerful than the helium neon lasers I used to make holograms in my basement as a kid. A few years ago, I began to place an order for a Wicked Laser but I stopped myself from hitting submit when I saw that the company was based in Hong Kong.

Last December, I saw that Wicked Lasers was going to stop shipping to the U.S. after the New Year, so I placed an order for a discounted laser of $375. After all, TechCrunch reported on them multiple times.

Gotcha

The gotcha that I'm seeing more and more often is that companies charge your credit card as soon as you place your order and then ship their product more than a month later. When this happens, the consumer's best avenue of recourse is to ask their credit card company to run a chargeback within 60 days if they think they're being scammed. I have yet to run a charge back for any purchase I've made, but I am seriously considering it in the future. I've most recently seen delayed shipping from Nanoleaf and Stack Social. Nanoleaf delivered my product on the 60th day and Stack Social has been replying with delayed shipping dates, but I'm still within my 60 day window.

Genius

What makes Wicked Lasers the model for online scams is that their customers will accept a two month delay since the product is coming from Hong Kong. During that time, Wicked Laser missed a few shipping dates, but their customer service team was responsive via phone and e-mail. Now, they no longer answer their phones, but their e-mail team is still responsive. Yet something is amiss. Wicked Laser's e-mail replies are written in excellent English, but vague enough to seem like a fortune cookie message or horoscope. Each response, in a vacuum, seems like it was addressed to me, or at least that's what I wanted to believe:

One month after ordering:
"Our support staff will not have any additional information regarding the shipping of your order until it ships. If you no longer want your order, we can cancel your order and process a full refund immediately."

Six weeks after ordering:
"Your order has been shipped and is on its way. You won't receive a tracking number for another 2-3 weeks because we first ship in bulk to our domestic warehouse, then directly to you."
(This is brilliant because it seems plausible and it stretches out the delivery to just about 60 days.)

Four weeks later:
"We are still waiting for the tracking information from the carrier. Orders that has shipped in February were returned by Chinese customs and shipped again after that."

Two weeks later:
"Your order will need 4-8 business weeks to be delivered from the date it has originally shipped."

April 22, 2015:
"We just received the latest update that your order is one of those that were held by customs and after trying to ship your order a few times, we can no longer ship the item to you. A refund will be made on your account. This will take 1-2 weeks before it gets credited to your account."

At the end of April when following up on my refund:
"Its mainly because we have exhausted the refund limits of our processors for the month which will replenish this May. You can check with me around Thursday next week for the transaction number."

Follow up from this past Thursday, May 7, 2015:
"We sincerely apologize for the delay in refund. Its mainly because we have exhausted the refund limits of our processors for the month of April which will replenish this month. We are doing the refunds based on the the order ID. However, I have included your order ID to be refunded as soon as the processor limit is lifted. You can check with me around Thursday next week for the transaction number."

How Will it End? Perhaps it Already Has

I'm sensing a pattern.
It's certainly plausible that everything Wicked Lasers has told me is true, but I feel like I've been scammed. It's very frustrating to chase down companies who know about order hiccups, but don't tell the customer unless the customer follows up. If I have been swindled, then I have to admire their technique of stringing customers along past two months while being responsive to customer service queries. I really wanted to believe that my shipment was on its way. In the words of Alexander Pope, "Hope springs eternal."


Thursday, April 23, 2015

The Arty Artfulness of Artistic Comments

It's been said that art is what you can get away with. But, that doesn't tell you what art is, rather, how it is perceived. Is the iPhone art in a pure sense? I would say no, but it is great design which is art with function. A better definition for art is that it's an expression of consciousness. We may sculpt marble or paint canvas with the intent of selling it, but art, in its purest sense doesn’t need to be sold. Art is that photo we snapped or that poem we wrote – the one we never intended to sell or even show someone else. We create something, where nothing previously existed, for creation's sake. We created it because we could. That's art in its absolute form… the unadulterated expression of consciousness. Unfortunately, though, this type art is too rare to be practical. 

Art is what you can get away with.
Some art is meant to shock us like Howard Stern or a woman vomiting paint on canvas. Some art can be simple, yet so powerful that it moves us to tears like Marina Abramović’s The Artist is Present when her former lover, from decades ago, makes a surprise visit. One of my favorite pieces of questionable art that stimulates discussion is from the very man who’s credited with saying, “Art is what you can get away with.”


Internet Comments: Art in the 21st Century


That brings us to a new form of art which didn't exist before the Internet which is the comment, anonymous action at a distance. Every comment, even the most mundane one, is a shot that can be heard around the world by any Internet citizen. Most people comment with the intent of expressing their consciousness even though it may have no impact. Sure, there are the know-it-all educators who try to teach us a lesson; and there are the trolls whose purpose is only to evoke a reaction. But there are many commenters who couldn’t care less about how people perceive them. They’re merely expressing their consciousness. 

I have two all-time favorite comments; neither of which was a comment on my own content. Both are lost to the Internet yet imprinted in my mind. The first one was a comment on the “questionable art” video of Andy Warhol I mentioned above where a citizen commenter wrote, “I love the part where he eats the hamburger.” That made me LOL out loud [sic].

Another comment that sticks in my mind was when someone posted this picture and asked, “What do these countries have in common?” The correct answer was, “These three countries don’t use the metric system.” But one clever commenter wrote, “These are all the countries that have put a man on the moon, plus Liberia and Myanmar.”

The thing to remember about comments, unlike popular art, is each person has their particular affection for each comment – and that’s okay. It’s like your favorite flavor of ice cream. Shock and awe doesn't require strength and dominance. Slow and simple can be just as profound and powerful like this musical performance.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Apple Watch Impressions

I tried on the Watch, today. It's my first foray in fashionable wearable tech. For this reason, it's different than my previous experiences with consumer electronics. Since it comes in different sizes, styles, and colors I literally had to be fitted. I put the cart before the horse by ordering my Apple Watch before today's fitting. As a matter of fact, I ordered it within the first five minutes of it going on sale, yesterday. But, it's comforting to know, after today's fitting, that I ordered the right Apple Watch for me. And, if I had made a mistake, I could simply cancel my order anytime before it ships in the next four to six weeks.

The Apple Watches I tried on today only ran a demo program. But, I did have an opportunity to interact with some of the display models. The fitting was a bit anticlimactic since it's simply a watch in form factor, and I've worn watches for decades. Clothing, eyeglasses, and watches are the original wearable tech invented long ago. So, choosing one of these form factors is a perfect starting point for wearable high-tech.

All the Apple Watch models have the same internals. There's no functional difference, on any level, between a $349 Apple Watch Sport and a $17,000 Apple Watch Edition. That may sound ridiculous until you consider that this is also true for cars.

Swank

Welcome to the world of fashion. Once a technology has matured enough to become a commodity it can be fashioned.

Checking out Apple's new products, before the Apple watch, was simple: I would walk into an Apple Store and play with a demo unit. With the Apple Watch, I had to schedule a one-on-one fitting with a personal shopper. He assisted me in trying on different models and bands. This may sound like pomp and circumstance, but it was actually a necessity for efficiency and security. That made the experience more like a visit to a jewelry store rather than a consumer electronics store. With the Apple Watch on my wrist it "tapped" me with a notification, which felt like a poke on my wrist. I like that this haptic feedback is a silent and private notification, unlike when my iPhone vibrates which others can hear. The tap, followed by a causal glance at the Apple Watch, is less distracting than reaching into my pocket and pulling out my iPhone.

Tethered

The Apple Watch isn't a standalone device like Apple's other key products. Rather, it's a wearable accessory of the iPhone. It's disappointing that the Apple Watch must be paired to an iPhone for connectivity and to run third party apps. But that will change. In the mean time, Apple certainly got the fashion part right compared to the now defunct Google Glass. Putting wearable technology into a familiar form factor is the key to consumer adoption. But it isn't easy to put high-tech into clothes, glasses, and watches. Google Glass made for a great demo, but it didn't look like a normal pair of glasses. As a matter of fact, Google Glass didn't even function like eyeglasses or sunglasses at all. Rather, it looked geeky, which is the opposite of stylish. What Google Glass really did was bring heads-up displays (HUD) to the consumer along with a ubiquitous camera. And it was the camera that made people especially uneasy. Seventy years ago, Dick Tracy showed us what a high-tech watch could do. Before Google Glass, consumers weren't pining for a wearable HUD, but we did want a two-way wrist communicator. While no one was asking for a pocket-sized computer, the fact that smartphones enabled communications was key to their adoption.

Functionality

While I love the Apple Watch as fashion accessory, I've read the reviews. The Apple Watch feels a bit underpowered and sluggish with marginal battery life. But, regardless, since I already wear a watch then I might as well have one that works with my iPhone.

Here are more of my Thoughts on Apple Watch from last month.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Software Cities

Yesterday, Dave Winer posted about why in software, we're always starting over. Software engineering is about managing complexity, and it seems to be approaching an asymptotic limit of what can be managed by individuals and companies. It's not that we won't be able to create more sophisticated software, we will; but the growth will be slower and the benefits less noticeable. We're running out of low hanging fruit; we're running out of simple software that performs a useful service as software engineering becomes more prolific.

The real world problem I'm seeing today is that software is becoming so complex that it won't work as expected. Our expectations need to readjust. Yesterday, I couldn't play iTunes Radio or iTunes Match because iTunes simply skipped from song to song without playing any of them. It's not that Apple engineers are incompetent – that's far from the case. Rather, it's a two fold problem. First is what I've already mentioned: software is becoming more and more complex. Second is the fact that new engineers come into the workforce that need to understand legacy software and then either build upon it or reengineer it. Either way, it requires a lot of time and effort. And, unless there's a simplification breakthrough, it's going to result in more complexity for the software engineer.

When pondering this issue, holistically, I look for other examples where I've seen similar problems. Instead of looking at it as a software engineering issue, I look at it as a systems engineering issue. This analogy works well when breaking down problems. For example, we can think of data packets transversing the Internet as cars (packets) carrying payloads of people (data). In this example, we see the redundancy of our roads. Destroying a bridge in Syria has no effect on the roads in the U.S. Or, destroying the Internet's "single point of failure," i.e. DNS, would be the dire equivalent of removing every road sign in the world. As systems fail in ways we didn't imagine, other pathways must handle the load resulting in cyber traffic congestion or even failure to access a network node endpoint.

Gentrification of Software

Software engineering has many similarities to constructing homes and buildings. We even use the same word, architect, in both disciplines. But, in the world of software, we are no longer simply creating buildings. In other words, we are no longer simply making standalone software applications. Instead, we are building entire cities, which, like computers, are networked together. And, like a city, every road can't be open all the time – there's constant construction preventing access. Most of the time, we can plan ahead. But, similar to real world infrastructure failures, like a water main break, we have problems, usually in the form of bugs or hardware failures, in the online world. 

All software needs to be checked for bugs, either by a compiler, coder, tester, or customer. Every new line of code increases complexity, but this is an oversimplification since we usually don't want to compress four lines of code into one. Code written must be debuggable and there's a balance between engineering, over-engineering, and making code intuitive for people to read. One never wants to be too clever when writing code. Too-clever code can end up fooling everyone like debugging a multithreaded race condition. I'm not aware of a formula to compute how dense code is, but an experienced software engineer will get an intuitive feel for it with years of experience. 

As towns and cities require building codes and permits, we may see the same thing in high-tech. Obviously, a bridge failing is catastrophic while Amazon going down is comparatively minor, no one is physically hurt in the latter. Lost revenue is vastly different than lost lives, but, that will change. What if an airplane auto-pilot breaks in-flight? Or, worse, what if it begins misreporting or misinterpreting flight data? In the physical world, our building codes are about safety. Online, our issues are about security – and the two are related. Our online world focus is on attacks rather than infrastructure failings.

While I don't see a need for software performance inspections by third parties, I do see a day when software will be inspected by independent agencies for security

Monday, March 30, 2015

Thoughts on Apple Watch

I'm somewhat excited to try out the Apple Watch. This is a different product for Apple since it's a fashion play. And, to make it fashionable, it had to fit into a form factor that's existed for a long time.

Making technology fashionable takes decades. A perfect example is the automobile which is probably one of the most impactful inventions of the 20th Century – after all, entire cities are built around it. What you drive, car and color, says a little bit about you. Fashion is the key reason Google Glass is no more, while the Pebble Watch is king of wearable high tech.

The downside of the Apple Watch is that it doesn't replace anything.

The iPod, which I didn't "get" at first, seemed pricy at $399. My primary reason for buying it was that it was half-price for Apple employees. Then, once I loaded it up, I totally "got it." With 1,000 songs in my pocket I realized that I had every piece of music I owned, at my fingertips. No more opening jewel cases to find it had the wrong CD in it. Or, even worse, no more empty cases because I had lent them out months before and forgotten about them. At the time, the iPod was a big deal for Apple, but it wasn't important for consumers because you could own one and not use it for weeks.

The iPhone was revolutionary because it replaced three things: your cell phone, iPod, and, to a useful degree, it replaced e-mail and a web browser.  Obviously, technology that enables and improves communications will always be important.

The iPad turned out to be more than just a large iPhone, but it only replaced your main computer to a limited degree. It's great for backward leaning content consumption, but it lacks the forward leaning knowledge work and creation benefits we get from a computer.

So, the Apple Watch adds to my digital luggage. Fifteen years ago, when I traveled, I only took my laptop. Now, I'm going to feel the need to bring along my iPhone, MacBook Air, iPad, and Apple Watch. But, that's not a big deal for me since I already wear a watch, so it might as well tie-in with my iPhone; and it helps that I'm a bit of a fashion snob since I mostly wear Brooks Brothers. :^D

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Principles of Apple

This is one of the best Tim Cook interviews about Apple explaining the differences between Apple and other tech companies. In a nutshell, it's about Apple's culture, philosophy, and principles, not stock price, market share, or profitability.

What was Steve Jobs's greatest invention? Was it the Apple 2, the Mac, iPod, iPhone, etc? Nope, Steve Jobs's greatest invention was Apple, the company, or more precisely the culture he created within the company.

Apple focuses on principles. Principles are fundamental ideas that don't change. This is why they do what they do. We (people and companies) implement principles in the form of values. Our values can change depending on the situation, but the underlying principles never change. A good example of the difference between values and principles is the difference between a map and the lay of the land. A consumer, surveyor, and pilot may all use maps, but each requires a different type of map such as Google Maps for roads, surveyor maps for contour lines, or an aeronautical chart for mountains, towers and airports. As long as your values represent the underlying principles, then you have harmony; wrong map for the wrong land and you've got a problem.

Companies focus on metrics to attain goals. (It's important to note that Apple, like many other companies, has no mission statement.) The key metric for success is profitability. Obviously, Apple has that one nailed. However it's not their ultimate goal. But, Microsoft is profitable too. The key difference is in how a company attains their goals. There are different ways to do that. Microsoft does it by going after market share. In order to maintain market share Microsoft is reluctant to walk away from legacy products. Other companies may sacrifice future earnings for a good showing in the latest quarter. Apple chooses to focus on making the best products and that's measured, holistically, by customer experience, from when you walk into an Apple retail store, to buying, unboxing, using and calling for support. Steve's focus was not on quarter to quarter profits or Apple's stock price. Instead, his priority was maintaining a responsibility to the long-term. Sure, it's important for the price of Apple's stock to go up otherwise the executives lose their jobs, but that's a pleasant byproduct of making the best products in the world.

And, keep in mind, that not every one of Apple's products is a home run. Don't forget about the Apple G3 Cube (sexy, but too expensive), iPod Socks (too generic), iPod Hi-Fi (expensive and poorly designed). Make the best possible products that are simple to use and recognize the bad ones as soon as possible. In other words, do not reinforce failure; do not throw good money after bad.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Principles of the U.S. Constitution

What makes the United States unique isn't who's president or which party is in control of Congress. Rather, it's the principles set forth in the U.S. Constitution focusing on individual rights. There is no place in this document for restricting the rights of American citizens, whether it's slavery, gay marriage, or prohibition. And, it's too easy for a large organization, such as the government or a person in power, to abuse our constitutional rights.

I cringe when I hear American leaders, especially flag officers in uniform, say that their primary duty is to protect the United States. Protecting America is part of their job. But that's not their primary responsibility as laid out in their oath of office: "to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic." A federal law enforcement officer may think it's okay to monitor a phone call of a suspected terrorist, who is an American citizen, for the greater good. But, without following the proper legal procedures, this is, by definition, a violation of the Constitution.

Principles vs. Values

In life we have principles and values. Principles are fundamental ideas that don't change. We manifest principles in the form of values. Our values can change depending on the situation, but the underlying principles do not change.

A good example of the difference between values and principles is the difference between a map and the lay of the land. A consumer, surveyor, and pilot may all use maps, but each requires a different type of map such as Google Maps for roads, surveyor maps for contour lines, or an aeronautical chart for mountains, towers and airports. As long as your values represent the underlying principles, you have harmony. Wrong map for the wrong place and you've got a problem.

A more abstract, yet practical, example of principles vs. values is marriage. Most every culture in the world has a principle concept of marriage. But, how that's implemented, in the form of values is different. Some marriages are strictly between one man and one woman, some are between one man and several women, simultaneously, and some marriages are between people of the same gender. Same principle, different values.

The U.S. Constitution spells out our principles and our laws codify them as our values.  It is never acceptable to protect our country while harming our Constitution.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Triggers to Live Life on Your Own Terms

Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and
look around once in a while, you could miss it.
Last night I went to an event where Gary Ware chatted about following your life's dreams. What would you do if you didn't have to work on a daily basis? Nearly everything he mentioned I was already doing.

I left corporate America in 2007. Since then I've written code, prose, and poems. I've been a journalist, blogger, and author; on my own terms. I learned how to fly and bought an airplane. After reflecting on this I wondered if Gary was living his dream? Perhaps he is, I only met him last night. But that thought, in turn, led me to a more important realization. Why or how did I end up doing nothing? That's when I realized the jump from corporate rat race to peaceful bliss, where everyday is a Saturday, requires a trigger. In my case several triggers.

Ready, Aim...

My first trigger was about 15 years ago when I was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. Realizing there was a real possibility my life could end before it started made me focus on doing things I enjoyed. (Miraculously, after six months of chemo, I was 100% cured, to the point that it's like I was never sick.) They key is to do the things you enjoy without being selfish. This means not doing something that lessens someone else's quality of life or satisfaction. A great way to avoid this is to find the good in people and cheer them on. But it has to be genuine.

The second trigger was ten years ago when I was doing humanitarian missions in East Africa where I saw people living simply. Yes, they were poor, living on less than $3/day, but there was a beauty in their lives. In the traditional corporate career you work hard. Nowadays, we work harder than ever before. Luckily our society makes the rest of our life easier since we don't have to milk the cows or harvest the fields. But we replaced that free time with more work. So, we feel we have to keep moving up the corporate ladder to make more money. But... and here's the key question... why do we need to make more money? On the surface, we think it's so we can have more financial freedom. But what happens is we end up buying more stuff that adds more complexity to our lives. A bigger house, a new car with more technology, etc. It actually makes our lives more complicated. The more complex our life becomes, the more brittle and fragile it ends up being. If you lose a high paying job you'll have to find another high paying job to be satisfied with your lifestyle.

Hiking Torrey Pines is a fine way to begin each week.
My third and final trigger was two fold. It was working at Apple when my father unexpectedly passed away. Since then, I focus on turning a crisis into an opportunity. Working at Apple was key because they went from near bankruptcy, the year before I joined them, to the biggest company in the world. Also, Apple was my trigger for understanding simplicity. More than anything else, Steve Jobs cared about making great products and he did that by simplifying them. Instead of engineer-ugly products with every possible feature, I learned the supreme elegance of simple design.

Simplification is the ultimate sophistication

But, to be truly appreciated, all this has to be earned, not given. So, today, I enjoy life. I really enjoy it and have been for as long as I can remember. I wake up early or sleep in. I read, write, and snap photos or attend events. I enjoy sunsets, food, friends, and family. It's a good life with simple pleasures. It doesn't mean I'll never go back to working a job where I've had scores of people reporting up to me, but it's nice to have life options rather than career obligations.


Virtual Credit Card Numbers


Have you ever wanted to try out a new online service or sign up for a subscription but were weary about giving out your credit card number? Perhaps it's a legitimate cable TV or satellite radio company, but you've heard rumors about it being difficult to cancel the service. Enter virtual credit card numbers to save the day. Most major credit card companies have a simple way for you to log in to your account and create a temporary card number with a credit limit and expiration date from two to twelve months.
It's almost like putting a stop on a check making it a very good solution.

If you've ever used Apple Pay then you're already using this behind the scenes. Next time your run an Apple Pay transaction, take a look at the last four digits on your paper receipt and you'll see it does not match your actual credit card. Why not? Because your credit card company assigned you a virtual credit card number on the fly as part of the Apple Pay payment.

Buy and be safe.