PostSecret

I don’t usually talk about it, but I love PostSecret. I’ve been reading the site nearly since its creation. I am amazed at the things people share and I’m grateful that Frank Warren has created a space for these shares.

One of the core focus areas for Frank (and for PS) is suicide. He spends a lot of time soliciting for Suicide Prevention services and he’s an advocate of that work. And what I’m about to say should, in no way, detract from that noble effort.

But I have a concern.

At key times, Frank himself will allow people to provide feedback about a postcard. Or he will, himself, respond to the postcard’s author (below the card on his site – he doesn’t have actual contact information for anyone unless they list it on the card). And he never discourages something that I think needs to be discouraged:

If you have any kind of mental illness, there’s no stigma associated with the illness… and it’s not who you are. But you should NOT be entering the mental health field.

I’m prepared to get blasted for this opinion, but I have a LOT of experience with this. You might make an excellent psychiatrist, social worker or psych nurse. But you should stay away from those fields. Not because you can’t do the job… but because it’s similar to a gambler going into a casino. You will have developed knowledge, skills and abilities in your field which may make you believe that you are now equipped to manage your own illness.

And I hate to break it to you, but you can’t.

You can’t and you shouldn’t (even if it were possible for you to do so). And it also biases you (positively or negatively is irrelevant, it’s any bias that isn’t good) with regards to the treatment of anyone who has (or might have) the same mental illness that you do.

So look. If you are suffering from a mental illness and have been working hard to manage your disease, that’s absolutely fantastic! And if you believe that the mental health professionals that helped you should be honored in some way, that’s great, too (they work really hard without a lot of recognition). But don’t honor them by trying to BE them. It could possibly work out just fine… or it could become disastrous. Why risk it? There are thousands of fields that need intelligent people – find one that doesn’t relate to something you’re that intimately involved in.

Shitty Customer Service

Once again, I seem to be a magnet for shitty customer service. This time, it’s with a tech provider.

So… I’ve used this same provider for YEARS. I came to them from a competitor, when I was having issues with that competitor not meeting the basic needs around the service. It thus came to me as a complete shock that tonight I was told that what I was trying to do (which is what I’d been doing since DAY ONE with this provider… WITH THEIR ASSISTANCE TO GET IT GOING IN THE FIRST PLACE) was in violation of their terms of service.

As we all know, this is a bullshit phrase used to condone inaction on the part of a service provider. I challenged it – I told them the history of my account and how we got to where we are: doing the same things that I’d been doing since I created the account (and had no problem doing for the last 3 years until now). They didn’t budge. In fact, they escalated. They told me that I could find reference to this policy on their legal page.

Of course, I looked. They said it’s the “Terms & Conditions”. No such section existed. I asked if I was at the right URL. They now told me that “they weren’t allowed to direct me further.”

What the what?!?

But whatever, it was just more bullshit.

So while they were telling me the BS policy that was supposedly the reason I couldn’t do what I wanted to do, I was, in the background, fixing the issue they said was the root cause of why they could’t help me. Thus, at the point where they now wanted to hang up on me and bid me farewell to go fix the problem and then call back (no thank you), I told them to refresh things on their end.

Et voila.

Took them about 30 seconds to fix my issue after that. Poofters.

Ghostbusters 2016 – Spoilers Ahead

I ain’t afraid of no ghost.

I’ve been saying that since the 80’s. Needless to say, I’m a huge fan of the original crew: Venkman, Stantz, Spengler and Zedemore. Plus Melnitz, Tully and Barrett.

I’ve also been waiting about 30 years for the third installment. When they announced in 2014 that they’d finally settled on a script, that a new movie was actually being produced, I almost wet myself. Then LEGO (who finally figured out that adult fans were LEGO kids and would pay a shit ton for GB sets) released two sets, all but confirming a movie on the horizon.

Frankly, I didn’t care that it was an all-female cast.  Or made by Paul Feig (who made Bridesmaids – not a movie I found that funny).  I cared that they were messing with my childhood.

And in the resulting two years of the mixture of hype and anti-hype, my concern remained.  First, it was that they hadn’t yet confirmed the presence of the entire original cast.  Then Ramis died and meant they couldn’t.  Rumors eventually started swirling that it wasn’t GB3, it was a reboot.

Seriously?!?

A reboot!?!

Ugh!!!

Name a reboot that’s actually been better than the original.  Go ahead, I’ll wait.

Most are superhero films that, interestingly enough, have already been rebooted several times within the pages of their own comic books.  Spiderman, Superman, Batman, Fantastic Four… And there are about 107 more coming in the next few years.

Ghostbusters was an original of sorts.  No, it wasn’t the first ghost “busting” movie – but it took the idea of hunting ghosts farther.  It has some of the most quotable one-liners ever.  It’s a 30-year old movie and there isn’t a week that goes by when I don’t hear or personally (mis)quote a line:

“One somebody asks you if you’re a god, you say YES!”
“This man has no dick.”
“Don’t cross the streams.”
“Let’s show this prehistoric bitch how we do things downtown”
“You’ve never been out of college! You don’t know what it’s like out there! I’ve *worked* in the private sector. They expect *results*. “
“If there’s a steady paycheck in it, I’ll believe anything you say.”
“Back off, man. I’m a scientist.”
“I love this plan! I’m excited to be a part of it! LET’S DO IT!”
“Sorry, Venkman, I’m terrified beyond the capacity for rational thought.”
“Why worry? Each one of us is carrying an unlicensed nuclear accelerator on his back.”

They’re not the funniest lines of any movie ever made – sometimes you just have to watch it to put it in context.  But it is awesome.

So why remake it?  Well… easy.  Money.  When you’ve got the bulk of an idea and don’t need to spend a lot of time retooling things to cash in, that’s an easy choice.  And we’re easy marks ($47M in the first weekend bears it out).

I had to see it for myself.  I was mildly hopeful.  They announced cameos by everyone who was alive (except for Rick Moranis, who retired to take care of his kids).  Previews showed a few funny lines and tech that aligned with the original.  I could envision a way that this would work.  And I hoped that Bill Murray got his chance to be a ghost.

Alas, it wasn’t to be.  It is a complete reboot and doesn’t acknowledge the existence of the prior films in any way.  Which is probably the most disappointing part… because the entire movie could’ve been what it was yet still work with the original two.  Here’s how (mild spoilers ahead):

1. Imagine that GB/GB2 happened as they did.  We leave off in 1989, 27 years ago.  New York City just experienced a massive ectoplasmic event.  What could happen?  There’s a lot of explaining to do – about the Statue of Liberty, the Museum, all the slime, etc.
2.  So they retire, as NYC is now all happy and the slime helps things return to normal (I still don’t understand the need for the Nintendo joystick to control Lady Liberty).
3.  And the GBs are “helped” by the Mayor’s office (again) into that retirement.  And maybe the government is interested in the proton packs [which aligns with the 2016 GB storyline].
4.  Time passes.  Tolan hears stories about the GB’s from her mortician uncle, Winston.  Holtzman is taught practical engineering and physics from an odd musician-turned-professor Barrett.  Or, perhaps,  Erin Gilbert is friends with Stantz through visiting his bookstore.
5.  Instead of independently developing the proton packs [which seem to be more actively damaging to ghosts this time around], the women could’ve stumbled upon the OLD tech… sitting dormant locked in the Firehouse.  Sure, they could advance the tech, too… but at least that would explain how the doofus Rowan is able to develop similar tech in the same time-window as the Ghostbusters.

See?  It wouldn’t have been too hard.  Hell, Venkman could’ve STILL played the skeptic… having completely turned a leaf after his two run-ins with the Mayor.  In fact, he could’ve been trying to find out whether the women stumbled upon the proton packs, which maybe were supposed to be destroyed, but were instead hidden from the government.

All in all, it could’ve honored the originals without having to start from scratch.  It would’ve been fun to see how the story would’ve progressed to tie it all together (which, admittedly, is harder to do than what was done).  Instead, they basically reshot the movie, scene by scene:

Opening ghost
GB individual background exposition
Ghostbusters formation
Finding the secretary
Meeting the villain
Show off the tech
Battle a disbelieving public and a skeptical government
Villain gets more powerful
GB’s to the rescue
Large white end creature, easily killed.
Everything wrapped up neatly

And don’t get me started on the after-the-credits scene.

The movie was a C/C+ at best.  After typing this all out, I’m struggling with the +.

Lego Wait Chapel

Ten years ago, when my brother-in-law was about to marry his wife, I thought it would be a cool gift to present them a LEGO version of Wait Chapel at Wake Forest University (that’s where they met and where they were getting married). I had a friend take some photographs and after looking at them intently for a few days, I realized I didn’t have the design/build chops, the quantity of LEGOs necessary, or the time to do it right. So I didn’t. I mean, just look at it – it’s a beautiful building and when LEGO builds something like this, they really do the original justice, so I wanted to do the same (click each photo to see a larger version).

Fast forward to now and we’re approaching their 10th Anniversary. I thought I might explore the idea again, since some things have changed. First, LEGO now has a tool called the LEGO Digital Designer for your computer. Within LDD, you can build in a 3D modeling environment, using every brick style made by LEGO, just about anything you can imagine. LDD then will export a parts list and will create the instruction book necessary to build the model in real life from the ground up. Second, LEGO also now sells bulk bricks direct via their website. Not their entire back catalog, but a LOT of different bricks. Third, I had a little time to prepare (about 8 months til their Anniversary). Fourth, the internet allowed me to find photos from multiple angles so I can see what the Chapel looks like all around, including from space so I could see the roof color and shape.
I downloaded LDD and started building. Ugh. Version 1 looked awful. The windows along the chapel were oversized, as were the doors at the back of the building. The steeple and roof had two different greens. I think the worst part though was the space capsule-esque way that I built the steeple itself.

Version 1

But I learned how to use the tool and started to solve some of the tricky design features of the build. Not to get too much inside baseball on you, but I realized that I had spent a crazy amount of time working around an odd number of studs, having started in the front of the building on the columns. So I decided to build at a bigger scale and started over. I tried to get really detailed and, at the end, the Version 2 model looked pretty damn good, if I do say so myself.

Specifically, I thought the roof-line details, the angled corners, and even the scaling all seemed more true-to-life to me. I especially liked the ridge above the columns, the extra edging near the windows of the steeple and the details up the steeple as well. I was also pleased with finding the sand green color bricks for the roof.

[Note for LEGO enthusiasts: For those of you with personal knowledge of the building, yes, I realized near the end of this build (as I was exploring Google Earth to see the building from space), that the main body of the building is actually a wedge-shape. I decided that attempting to tackle THAT particular issue was beyond my building capacity. But, if you’re personally interested in how to solve the issue, I suggest saving up and buying LEGO’s Sydney Opera House. They solved the problem there.]

Version 2

Count the studs left to right to get an idea of scale (64 studs across x 96 deep is actually 1.68 x 2.52ft). But at that size, it was also a little under 2,000 pieces (1,918 to be exact). When I exported the parts list and started looking them up for costing purposes, I found that LEGO didn’t sell many of them direct.

This was kinda’ shocking, but the Internet came to the rescue in the form of BrickLink.com – basically eBay for LEGO enthusiasts. Parting it out and getting pricing, I found I apparently used some pretty rare bricks. In fact, I even used some that you couldn’t find at all (the ones the clock faces are touching simply are unavailable in that color). And that beautiful sand green color? It would prove to be the achilles heel of the build. The net total would be nearly $700 for the parts. No one would accuse me of being frugal, but that’s a little expensive, even for me. 

Back to LDD for Version 3, a 1/2 scale of Version 2. It is just shy of 1,000 bricks (936) and I took special care to use many that LEGO still sold directly and if not, I verified availability via Bricklink. This meant a loss of the octagonal section of the steeple, and the angled connection of the portico to the main chapel area. But it still resembles the Chapel.

Total brick cost of about $150. Completely do-able. Apart from the design features I felt I could forego without damaging the integrity of the structure, I had to sacrifice in one area that I felt really impacted the visual accuracy of the real building. Specifically, two pieces that would’ve extended the steeple of the Chapel to a fine point. But nobody seemed to have them in the color I needed (and as I was matching reality here, I couldn’t get too creative). I figured it would be ok.

Version 3 w/o Steeple Pieces

I went to work on “sourcing” the bricks via a combination of LEGO-direct and various BrickLink sellers. Over the course of the next few weeks, I received little LEGO care packages from all over the world. It was kinda’ funny, but I enjoyed it.

Once I got all of the pieces, I did a trial run and put it together following the instructions the LDD tool provided. One of the things LDD doesn’t do is check for actual structural integrity. In other words, you can build without care as to whether a wall will hold itself up and LDD won’t stop you. I’m glad I did this test build, too. I found a few errors – one window on the back of the building was one stud off, hovering in space about three layers above anything that actually supported it. But nothing that required additional bricks (thank god). I corrected the errors in the LDD and then disassembled the model back to individual pieces. (The recipients are LEGO fans and seem to enjoy building together. My hope is that building it is going to be part of the fun for them.)

All the parts laid out for the trial build
Front View

Side View
Rear View – Yes, that IS a purple leather couch.  Aren’t you glad you know someone as cool as me?
Did you notice the error I made again on Version 3? When I started scaling down, I did so from the back (so I would have the width correctly laid out). And I built almost the entire rear of the building before working up to the front/columns… where I realized that by downsizing the columns from 2-stud widths per column to 1-stud width per column, I had effectively created an odd number of studs from left-to-right in the front. This meant I had an odd stud problem again. But since I had already built the entire rear of the building by now, I figured I could handle it in true LEGO expert builder fashion – using off-set plates to get the steeple centered on the building properly.

Next up was getting the instructions printed – 253 steps equals 253 individual pages. Even double-sided that’s 125+ pieces of paper and FedEx/Kinkos wanted $95 to print and bind the instructions. I found a more accessible printer and then took the 125+ pages to FE/Kinkos. They only charged me $6 to bind it.  Perfect.

In my mind, I’d always wanted the presentation to be as a traditional LEGO “set” – in a box that I covered with ModPodge’d print-outs to look like what you get directly from LEGO.  I started looking for a cardboard box of the size I needed (I just measured the bags of LEGO and the manual and knew I needed 400 cubic inches of space). Driving to AC Moore, then to Michaels – I found ModPodge, but no boxes.

Turns out, nobody makes readily available cardboard boxes of that size. In fact, to get 400cu inch boxes, you need to have them custom die-cut. The companies that do this kind of work want $2/box, which isn’t bad. But you have to order in quantities of 50 or more. Ugh again.

OK, I thought, maybe I’d go old-school. Back in the 1960s, LEGO was released in wooden boxes with several different designs on the box. They didn’t really have “sets” back then, just a bunch of bricks and some suggestions of what you can do with them. So back to the internet to find a 400cu inch wood box with a sliding lid (the kind used by LEGO).
Holy cow, was this turning into an adventure – NOBODY made boxes like this unless, again, I was doing something like a corporate gift and wanted 100s of them, laser etched, etc. I even went to a woodworking store in Raleigh and thought about buying wood and making the box myself. Even if I had the right tools (which I didn’t), and the skill (which I don’t), the wood itself would be more than $60. Adding the tools would be another $100+. The guy behind the counter at the store even snickered at me when I explained what I wanted to do and the level of skill that I possessed. I left the store feeling a little down. I don’t like being unable to complete projects I start.
A few nights later, I had reason to be on Etsy. All of the sudden, I thought to search Etsy for wooden boxes. Sho’ nuff. A guy in Missouri offered to make what I wanted, out of maple, finger jointed, sliding lid, etc, for $25. Plus $8 for shipping. Sold.
When it arrived, it was already gorgeous, but I knew I needed to stain it and seal it. I also needed to put the LEGO logo on the lid. So I downloaded a picture of one of the old LEGO logos of that era, cleaned it up in Photoshop and set it to Vistaprint to make 3×4″ stickers.

The first batch of stickers came back damaged, and the image was also pixelated.

See the jagged edges?  These were visible on the sticker.

While waiting for Vistaprint to send me a second batch, I was staining the box a nice natural wood color and wondering if there wasn’t a better way to do the logo, since there wasn’t much I could do with the image file (I’m just not that good in Photoshop).

Having lunch with an artsy friend, she suggested I hand paint it.  I was horrified – there was no way I was going to do it freehand. She laughed (sensing a trend at the number of times I got laughed at for this project?) and told me to stencil it, which I also couldn’t figure out how to do – until a few minutes later, I had a brainstorm and borrowed a digital projector. I set it up so that the projector threw the logo against the wall. I placed the box on a table in front of the wall, refocused the image down to the right size/position (I’d already marked the lid to center the sticker) and I traced the logo in pencil. I went the next day and bought red, yellow and black acrylic paints and that afternoon, I painted. It’s not perfect, but it looks pretty good.

So now I need to seal it all. Using oil-based stain and acrylic paints, I needed a water-based polyurethane (oil-based poly would’ve wiped away the acrylic paint). Apparently, Lowe’s doesn’t sell much of that because they didn’t have any. ACE, however, did. In a quart size (of course).

Would’ve been ok with me if they sold it in pints instead of quarts.  Anyone need any poly?

Back home, I’m out on the deck painting the polycrylic onto the box. Then waiting 2 hours. Then coating the other side of the box. Then waiting 2 hours. Then lightly sanding the whole thing with very fine sandpaper. Then doing it again. And again. And, for good measure, again. Looking great by now.

Stained, Painted, Sealed and ready for packaging.

I think I’m done! I put the lid near the box and let it set for another 24 hours to be sure it was dry. I then closed the lid on the box and walked away for a day or so. When I came back to the box to put the LEGO and manual inside, I found that the lid kinda’ stuck. The polycrylic on the lid and in the channels for the sliding touch each other – creating a lot of friction.

Oh, and the poly seemed to be outgassing and smelled pretty strongly. Crap. I figure I’m going to probably have to sand the very thin section of the lid inside the channels and the channels themselves. But I don’t know a lot about woodworking and went to a woodworking website to ask for advice. They suggested 600 grit sandpaper on the edge/channels and then waxing the edges/channels. As for the smell, they suggested leaving the box in front of moving air for a month.

Sandpaper was easy and wood wax (another quart size) was right across the same aisle at Lowes. But I was concerned about the wax. This didn’t seem to be the right stuff. I was looking for paraffin wax, not floor wax. Nope, Lowe’s doesn’t sell that, either. Back to the woodworking website for more advice – and they sent me a link to a prior discussion on paraffin wax. People readily found it at Amazon for $6/lb.  Then someone noticed that Wal-Mart sells it for $3/lb. Heading to Wal-Mart the next day, I went to Customer Service to ask where to find the wax. The lady looked at me like I had 2 heads. She had to look it up first on their website and then cross-reference it to their inventory system by SKU (on another computer)to find out that it was in department 92 – grocery.

Anybody need 1lb of paraffin wax?  I’ll make you a great deal!

Okayyyyy… not what I was expecting. But I wandered the grocery aisles for a few minutes until I found it and then it made sense, sitting amongst the other canning accessories. And yep, $3. Back at home, I do the sanding, and, wouldn’t you know it, the lid works great and I don’t even need the wax. I had the box sitting in front of a fan (the one I posted about on Facebook) for a few weeks non-stop. True to their advice, the smell dissipated after about a month in front of the fan.
My finishing touch was a brass plaque to go on the inside of the box, saying that it was from us. As with every other part of the build, I went to several websites and wasn’t quite comfortable with the apparent cheapness of the offerings – most in the $5-15 range. Heading over to the mall, I stopped in at Things Remembered, as I’ve had several brass plaques made by them over the years. I fill out the order form and right before I hand over my credit card, the salesgirl tells me that it’s $45! Uh, no. Back to the internet. Ordered and arrived a few days later – $12.50, including shipping, and it looks great.
Two months passed and Christmas is finally here. I put everything in the box, including a jump drive with the plans for the 2000 piece version, just in case they’re bored with the smaller version. I wrapped it and set it aside.

Then I looked at the pictures I’d taken again and really wasn’t satisfied with the top of the steeple. I wanted those extra two parts I couldn’t find before so I went back to Bricklink. Wouldn’t you know it? Someone sold them now. Order placed. 

They arrived two days before Christmas. I updated the design in LDD, but everything was already wrapped. So I handed the recipient the two extra pieces after they opened the gift and if they want updated instructions, I can give them those, too.

Version 3 with Full Steeple – As Gifted

At the end of the day, the time and effort spent (and getting laughed at by everyone who heard the story as the build progressed) was well worth it for the look of surprise and recognition across the recipient’s face. I hope they enjoy assembling it as much as I enjoyed bringing it all together!

Gun Control

With every gun-related tragedy comes renewed vigor to ban guns.  I have been individually responding to people’s Facebook and blog posts and figured it’s just easier to put my thoughts and feelings all into one place.  The short answer is that I’m pro-choice with regards to guns.  If you want one, get one, if you don’t, don’t – but don’t stop me from having one.  The long answer is a little more complex.

In thinking back through my life, I can’t think of a time where I didn’t like guns.  A slew of squirt guns, cap guns and things that simply resembled a gun shape moved in and out of my life.  I wasn’t obsessed with weapons (sure, as a teenager, I loved the idea of dangerous things), a gun-shaped item is merely the most efficient shape in which to deliver something ELSE a distance from me (water, noise, and yes, bullets).

By the time I got to military school and learned to shoot competitively, I found that I enjoyed shooting as a form of relaxation.  It takes skill to put a small projectile through a dot on a piece of paper 25+ yards away.  At Olympic-level events, you have to control or account for everything, even air temperature.  And I have found that when I’m shooting, if I focus on it properly, everything else melts away.

But I didn’t own a gun until I was 30.  Now I have several – securely locked away from curious fingers.  I own them for personal/family protection in addition to target practice.  And while I’ve given a great amount of thought to the Second Amendment, I don’t know whether I really believe that individual gun ownership was intended by the Constitution.  For now, however, the US Supreme Court has ruled that it is and does.

Now, this doesn’t mean that I believe that just anyone can own a gun.  As with other things in a polite society, we have reasonable rules and regulations surrounding ownership.  In North Carolina, you can acquire a handgun in one of two ways:

  1. Purchase a gun permit – which requires subjecting yourself to a background check, including validation against the FBI’s fingerprint database that you’re not otherwise prohibited from gun ownership (i.e.: a former convicted felon).  You can buy a maximum of 5 at a time.
  2. Complete the “Concealed Carry Handgun” program – which is an 8 hour course on handgun safety, laws and shooting and then allows you to, within the boundaries of the law, have a handgun on your person that is not visible to others (in NC, open carry is permissible without a permit – you just can’t carry to the “terror of the public”).  With this permit, you can purchase a handgun without an additional gun permit.
I have purchased handguns under both methods.  In both cases, the federal and county/state government knows who I am and that I own at least one gun.  Unlike others, I am actually ok with them knowing.  Why?  Because I don’t plan on doing anything illegal. (Yes, I understand that this is a slippery slope argument and can be used to support government-run surveillance, etc.)
Overall, this means that I don’t want ex-cons, people with psychological disorders, or people with a history of violence (of any kind) to have guns.  In addition, I don’t think that the average individual needs to have automatic weapons – and, generally speaking, probably doesn’t need to own dozens of weapons either (collectors notwithstanding).
Even on a god awful day like yesterday, though, it’s not the gun that killed a single individual.  It was the person who was using the gun.  If he had left the guns in his car, the guns themselves wouldn’t have done anything.
The problem in blaming the guns is that they’re merely implements of destruction.  They no more kill someone than a car kills someone.  And as far as killing is concerned, cars are the mode of nearly 3x more death than violence (guns, but not just guns).  In 2011, the World Health Organization statistics showed that vehicular death was 2.98% of the total, violence (again including, but not limited to, guns) was just .98% (so guns were responsible for even less).
Yet you don’t hear anyone suggesting that we ban cars.  Heck, we can’t even figure out a way to stop repeat offenders from driving under the influence.  So why argue to ban guns and not cars?
Well, I suppose it’s because people believe that a gun’s only purpose is to kill and does so when operated correctly, whereas a car is meant for transportation and kills when (usually) operated incorrectly.  But it’s the operator, not the implement.  Let’s find a way to fix that instead.
[BTW, I welcome healthy debate in the comments below.  But I want real debate – not strawman arguments, emotional pleas, etcetera.]

Time Slips

Time slips away.  As John Lennon said, “life is what happens while you’re making other plans.”

Since Cam’s birth, I’ve barely had time to think, let alone to write.  The result is that I’ve not worked on any of my books, haven’t really written any articles (business or otherwise), haven’t felt “productive”.

But the truth is that my job, today, is to raise my child.  Which means that all of the other things that I thought were important, just aren’t.  So I don’t write, unless it’s to record stuff about him.

Life, though, is DEFINITELY happening.  Since the last post we’ve moved and I’ve switched jobs.  More importantly, Tina and I shuffle things around on a daily basis to make Cam’s life better.  My life is just about making his better.

And I love it.

I wasn’t sure I could do this parenting thing.  He didn’t come with an instruction manual and I was hard pressed to understand why they would let us take him out of the hospital at 4 days old without any kind of certification, training or guaranty of our ability to keep him alive.  But they did, and we have.

It’s taken lots of long, sleepless nights… and more money than one could ever contemplate.  But it’s totally worth it the moment I hear him get up in the morning and ask Tina for “Da”.

Black Friday

Just in time for this holiday season comes the latest tale of retail negotiation success.

I’ve been lusting after a new TV for awhile.  Since our move, my old big-screen just hasn’t been right.  Could be the five flights of stairs it traveled in the move.  Could be the two years of storage about a year into its life.  Could be the massive amount of evening TV I watch.  Whatever.  In any event, the TV repair folks told me that the cost to repair substantially outweighs the value.  Lucky (sorta’) for me, the deterioration causes visible problems that are driving Tina batty.  Hence my ability to actually look for a new TV.

The actual TV I’m interested in is irrelevant, so rather than bore you with the specifics, let’s just call it X.  X has been on sale recently, down about 45% from it’s suggested retail price.  I’ve been watching it on Amazon and at Best Buy and Amazon has beat BB by about $200.  So I was still debating the merits of X with Tina when I looked online this morning and saw it for another $150 off – essentially 50% from its MSRP.  Woo hoo!  Time to buy!

But I had to get final approval so I couldn’t click through quite yet.

A few minutes later and I was ready to go.  I clicked ‘Add to Cart’ and just before I clicked Buy, I noticed that we were back to the pre-Black Friday price.  Woah.

So rather than Buy, I called Amazon’s customer service line.  Invariably, I found “Peggy” (a person of obvious foreign persuasion, pretending to be in the US “for my comfort”).  It only took her 10 minutes to verify my account because she couldn’t spell, couldn’t validate my physical address and for whatever reason, would ask me the same question over and over.  But hey, once we got through that, I was confident that I would be able to explain my complicated issue to her and get resolution.

As Wayne Campbell might say “shah – and monkey’s might fly outta’ my butt!”  But hey, I’m nothing if not patient.  So I tried.

Twenty-five minutes later, we were no closer to resolution and nearly half that time had been spent with me on hold while Peggy tried to work things out on her end.  Her eventual response?  That I needed to talk with the folks in the “large items” area.  But, of course, they were closed (it was only 8am ET, so I was agreeable).  Peggy offered to take my phone number and have them call me back in an hour.

Perfect.  No problem.

Five hours later (after we were back in the car, having spent the day at the Zoo), I still hadn’t received a call, so I called back.  [Now, what I didn’t tell you was that I periodically called and after being on hold for 20-30 minutes at a time, decided to simply try later.]  This time, I almost immediately got through.  This support person was a native English speaker so we quickly got to the large item desk.

They explained that Amazon doesn’t guaranty prices until you actually Buy.  They also checked and told me that what I saw earlier in the day was “Sold by Amazon” and the one that was now in my cart was “Sold by” someone else, so Amazon had no power to make any changes.  If I wanted X, I was going to have to pay the higher price.  Grrrrr.  No deal (at least not yet).

I finished driving home and checked my e-mail.  Waiting for me was a “how’d we do” e-mail from Amazon.  Ahhh… revenge.  Only, I didn’t want revenge, I simply wanted to say how things were for me.  And, in my opinion, it wasn’t great.  So I gave the experience a bad grade.  Amazon’s automated process then asked me if I would be willing to let them take another chance to make it right – enter my phone number and let them call me.  So I did.

A few seconds later, I get a call from Mike at Amazon.  I explain the situation and he reiterates the earlier explanation of why they really can’t do anything.  So while he’s considering what he might be able to do, Cameron is yammering in the background.  This gives Mike the ability to be friendly… and for me to connect with Mike on a personal level.  He’s a dad, a grandfather and has been at Amazon for awhile.  He was able to see that I’ve been an Amazon customer for more than a decade (they keep the entire history).  We commiserated over the advances in technology and retail.

In between, however, I hear an opportunity – that if there’s a TV that *Amazon* sells, Amazon can budge on price.  I quickly locate the model of X that Amazon does sell – one model more advanced (this one has 3D, even though I don’t need/want it), let’s call it X+.  Unfortunately, it’s also a little more expensive.  I give Mike the updated model number and he pulls it up on his end.  I ask him if he can “work with me”.

While he’s checking (as he realizes I’ve asked for a pretty significant discount), we keep chatting.  A few minutes elapses.  He tells me that no one has responded to his inquiry, so he’s going to go ahead and do it.  A few seconds later, I get X+ for the earlier advertised price of X.  Schweet.

Effective savings:  >$300 off retail.  >$1000 off MSRP.
Cost:  3 phone calls and some schmoozing.
Totally worth it.

Customer Service Craziness Magnet

Some people are magnets for bad boy/girlfriends.  Others are magnets for “trouble”.  I’m a magnet for poor customer service.

I don’t know why that is, exactly.  Generally speaking, I’m friendly and I get along well with others who show me some modest level of respect.  So why is it that I tend to find the people who don’t know what they’re doing, don’t know how to help me and don’t ever seem to satisfy what I’ve asked for?

Part of it, I think, is that I DO know what I’m doing, most of the time.  So by the time I call for help, or by the time I look for additional information, I’m not a newbie.  I don’t need to be walked through the basics.  I don’t need to be told to “make sure it’s plugged in” or to “check to verify xyz”.  I’ve done those things long ago.  I’ve also tried about a dozen potential solutions.  I’ve spent an hour or more on the internet looking to see if other people have had the same difficulty and how they resolved the issue.  I’ve done my homework and now I’m calling “the expert” for assistance.

Oh, and need I mention that at one point in my life, I was a first-line tech support guy, too?  So I’ve seen it all from both sides of the fence.  Take it from me, customer service is lacking across the board.  But I hear the complaints about stupid customers, stupid management and god-awful policies.  I understand that you are constrained.  You have limits to your abilities to help.  You can only do so much with what you’re given.

So, customer service experts, here are some suggestions on how to satisfy your next customer without going crazy yourself, but still meeting the needs of the person coming to you for help (because even in sales-related customer service, you’re still providing “help” of some sort):

  1. Assume that I know what I’m talking about.  You can use a few base questions to figure out if I really do or if I’ve only got a surface-level knowledge about the topic at issue.  But don’t start from the “you don’t know anything” position.  This shows respect and you might find out that I actually DO know what I’m talking about.  Heck, you might even learn something about your area of expertise as a result.
  2. Listen.  I know, I know.  Trite.  But yet so true.  You have to listen to me.  Which means that you can’t be talking at the same time or trying to tell me something about anything other than what I am asking you to address.  It’s kinda’ funny that I’m saying this, for with legal-related issues, I know that I tend to ask questions about what appear to be unrelated topics.  But if you have to ask a question that makes it sound like you’ve not been listening and are just going through a checklist, explain the reason for the question.
  3. Respond to what I’m asking.  If I ask “What’s your lowest APR available today?” – don’t tell me the benefits of your company.  Tell me the lowest APR.  If I say “I want to buy THIS computer.” please don’t try to sell me something different.  And if I ask “Can I use any receptacle for my outdoor plugs or do I need a GFCI plug?” don’t provide me with the history of the discovery of electricity.  Answer the friggin’ question.
  4. I don’t need to know how smart you are.  I’m already coming to you for your knowledge.  You don’t need to prove that you know more about the topic than I do.  You simply need to apply that knowledge to solve my problem.  I admit that I stumble on this one as a consultant all the time.  I forget that they already know I’m an expert and I sometimes feel the need to prove it.  Don’t.
  5. Answering “I don’t know” to my question is fine – so long as you follow it with “but I’ll go find out for you.”  Nuff said.
Anything I’ve left out?

Copyright Oddities

Copyright is a weird animal.  It’s one of the few constitutionally-mandated personal rights and it serves as the basis for the vast majority of the things people do online and in their daily lives (everything from this blog to your tweets and FB status postings to anything you write as a result of your job…. to photos you take while on vacation).  Yet it’s so fundamentally misunderstood that it’s almost a joke.

Which is interesting given that the penalties for violating copyright are pretty severe.  Forgetting the civil penalties (those that can be levied against you by the actual person you harmed), the criminal penalties can go up to $250,000/copy + 5 years in Club Fed.

One of the nuances of copyright is that in order to have a copyright in something, you have to have created the work covered by copyright (and it has to be a work that can be granted a copyright) … or you have to have acquired the copyright rights from the person who created the work.

Which makes the situation around the photographer who had his camera lifted by a monkey … and who then proceeded to snap a wonderful self-portrait …. so damn interesting, especially to those of us interested in copyrights.

In fact, as soon as I saw this image, I went to make it my Facebook profile photo.  Which, of course, I shouldn’t do – I don’t own the image.  And it took Facebook reminding me of this fact for me to actually stop from doing it.  But the question is:  who holds the copyright to the image?

The ownership of the photograph itself is clear: it’s the photographer (and perhaps the wire news service that paid the photographer for the photo).  But copyright doesn’t automatically transfer with the ownership of the tangible item – again, copyright is a weird creature and unless you’re willing to dive down the moral rights rabbit hole with me tonight, just accept what I tell you as fact and look it up later.

Copyright, however, requires an “author” … and per US law (17 USC), an author can only be a “natural person” or a “juridicial person” (a corporation, etc).  A monkey (or other animal) doesn’t fit into either category and is thus unable to hold copyright.  The result is that there now exists a legal quandary.  Who (if anyone) holds copyright?

The law is pretty clear at the moment (and, in fact, is being used as yet another example of how copyright law is outdated and needs to be revised for the 21st century – but really, do picture-taking monkeys only exist in the 21st century?).  However, the news agency seems to assert that copying is at least uncool if not illegal.  Which is going to prompt someone to eventually sue.

This is one to watch, folks.  The outcome could get interesting.

House Dating

In case you haven’t seen my posts on the topic before, Tina and I are looking for a new home.  Cam’s getting to the age where he needs more space (and I would like an office that isn’t also a bedroom).  So we’ve spent the better part of a year fixing the things that needed fixing… and making the house a curb-appeal rockstar.

Meanwhile, we’re sorta’ looking, too (no, we’re not dumb enough to want to try to have two mortgages – no thank you).  But if we get an offer, we need to be prepared.  So we’ve keep a running list of a few potential properties that we’d like to go see in the event things work out for us.  A few days ago, things started to look like they would.

So we took 3 hours out of our realtor’s Fourth of July weekend to go house hunting yesterday.  I have to say that I’m pretty disappointed overall… and I think it has to do with some central tenants/laws/rules about selling homes that really closely pair with rules for dating.

1. Set expectations properly.  When you’re dating, especially online, the first thing most people show is their photo.  As a guy, I can tell you that if you are looking through a screen of women and all you see is a head, the first question you have is about the body.

Homes are the same.  If you show the inside, but no exterior shots – my first thought is that there’s something wrong with the outside.  Additionally, when you DO show photos of the outside, don’t take a photo from a weird angle to use some form of forced perspective to make it no longer appear that you have a 200′ vertical elevation drop from the street to your garage.  The minute I see that in real life, I’m not even going to look inside your home (which will become more important to you, the seller, in a minute).

Also – if you post a sign or have a request that I take of my shoes when entering, you’d better well have your place looking like a “no shoes” home.  By that, I mean:

  • you’d better not be a smoker and have cigarette butts outside or smoke smell inside
  • your floors had better be immaculately clean (my white socks will tell me the story in a minute)
  • you probably shouldn’t have a dog – especially one that requires food and water bowls in the kitchen AND in your master bathroom… and where you’ve picked up the slopped food around the bowls, too
All in all, if you ask me to remove my shoes, I will have enough respect for you to do it – even though I don’t know you.  But if you’ve wasted my time AND I’ve felt just a little weird walking bare or stocking-footed through your home, you can bet I’m not putting an offer on your place.
So, set expectations properly.
2.  Know your price range.  Look, I know that nobody wants to admit when someone is “out of their league” but the truth of the matter is that not everyone fits well with everyone else romantically.  Try as hard as you might, but Penny and Leonard just aren’t meant to be together long term (besides, Pria is a better match).  Granted, I have NOTHING against Penny.  She’s just not going to be able to hang with Leonard’s crowd (or vice versa for that matter – even though Leonard really wants to).
For houses, if you price your home based on what you feel it’s worth, and not based on what it’s actually worth given its location and condition, don’t expect to get what you want out of it.  Real estate is already incredibly volatile and fickle.  Our current home was headed on a 5+%/year increase trajectory at the point when we bought it.  Which means that today, I should be able to get 128% of what I paid for it.  Wanna’ guess if that’s what the housing market says it’s worth?  Of course it’s not.  The market took a header and down went my hopes of ever seeing the 100% increase prior owners of this same house did.
When you price your home and then scoff at the offers that come in, take a moment to think about whether the home is worth what you’re asking.  What makes it worth that?  Is it immaculate?  Does it have a big backyard with a fence?  Is it on a quiet street in a good neighborhood?  Does it still have any builder brass or builder slab fixtures?
I’m not going to pay for potential.  I’m going to pay for what is.
3.  The corollary to #2 is: Don’t believe your own hype.  Yes, I know you’re awesome and your mother thinks you’re awesome, too.  What does your ex-girlfriend/boyfriend think?  Would they start your personal ad with all caps: “STUNNING HOME (guy/girl) IN & IS PICTURE PERFECT”?
No?
Right.  Why?  Well, first, all caps is shouting.  But beyond that, people won’t describe themselves as perfect (and usually not stunning).  Which is why, in real estate, we have agents.  House Pimps.  They’re there to market the heck out of something that isn’t all that.  And, like lawyers, we tend to dislike all of them other than our own.  [Speaking of which, our agent is awesome.  If you ever need someone in Raleigh, let us know and we’ll connect you.]
But when you believe the House Pimp Hype, you’re forgetting that there’s a reason why you no longer want to live there.  Part of that forgetting allows you to move… the other part makes you want to sell for more than it’s worth (See #2 above).  More importantly, however, it creates a disconnect between reality and fantasy.  At the end of the day, I’m buying a house and I’m going to have to work to turn it into a home.  Drop your hype and figure out what it is about the house that lends itself to becoming a home.
The same, of course, is true for dating – you become a great catch when you realize what you have that’s useful to someone else.  But this is really the subject of a whole other post (and a book that I’m working on).

4.  Don’t waste my time.  Actually, all of these rules come together to support this final rule.  If you waste my time, you’re never going to get my interest.  If I have to figure out the “real you” in dating or the “real deal” on the house, that’s wasting my time.  And given the amount of technology at our disposal these days to find out a lot of the story early on in the “relationship”, don’t be surprised that if you try to fool me to get me close and when I am and see you for what you are … that I run.

Yesterday, we saw the 200′ vertical drop house in person.  Photos made it look great, but there was no way that we would ever make it up and onto the street in a Raleigh winter with a little ice or freezing rain.  So we didn’t bother to even look inside the house.  There was no way to fix this issue.

Some people probably don’t care about things like that (heck, the house isn’t brand new, so theoretically, several people haven’t been bothered by it).  But deceiving me enough to drive out to BFE to see it in person just pissed me off.  So I cancelled my showing slot.  Which, if you’re like me, meant that you had been forced out of your house during my slot and now have nothing to show for it.

On the flip side… don’t make a showing appointment with me and then cancel mid-way through the time.  I’ve had to pack Cam into the car… maybe even wake him from a nap a little early.  All told, a huge inconvenience.  I’ve been completely honest in my listing and photos so there’s nothing unexpected about what you’ll see when you arrive.  So don’t bail on me now.  Because, as with dating, I can find out who you are (or who your House Pimp is)… and I can promise that if you call back later, I won’t be pleasant to deal with.  🙂