XBox Live Gold and a Pet Peeve

WARNING: Nerdy, kvetchy, juvenile rant ahead. Those of a sensitive disposition may wish to avert their eyes. You must be at least 48″ tall to read this post. Pregnant women or visitors with neck or back problems should sit this one out. Please consult your physician before proceeding. Do not read while under the influence of alcohol or medication. This post has been shown to cause cancer in laboratory animals. 4 out of 5 dentists surveyed believe you should read something else instead. Still here? Ok, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.

You know what I hate? Businesses that will  let you sign up easily for their service on their web site, but when you want to cancel said service, require you to call their support line, wait on hold, get hung up on, call back, get transferred to their outsourced support center, punch your account number into the phone, talk to “Bob” from somewhere that’s definitely not mid-America, tell “Bob” your account number, tell “Bob” your account number again because he wasn’t ready the first time, tell “Bob” why you want to cancel the service, endure “Bob’s” sales pitch on the many virtues of the service, assure him that yes you still want to cancel, endure another sales pitch with the promise of a temporary discount, assure him that yes you still want to effing cancel, wait on hold again, get transferred to another representative who doesn’t know anything about the conversation that’s already transpired, tell the new representative your account number, and write down the “cancellation confirmation number” so that when they charge you again next month you can provide the number and be told they have no record of it.*

Which is why I won’t be buying another XBox Live Gold subscription.

Bad enough that, even though I’ve already paid for the XBox, for the game I want to play, and for my Internet connection, I still have to pay an additional fee for the privilege of playing on-line. But add the fact that they won’t let you cancel your Gold membership online — a fact which they don’t actually make clear anywhere except by not giving you a cancel option in any of the dozen places on their website and subscription management screens on the XBox you might reasonably think a cancel button might lurk — and it pushes me well over the threshold of nonsense tolerance.

My favorite part of the whole experience was asking “Bob” why there’s no online option to cancel my account. He assured me initially that it was for security reasons. “Let me get this straight,” I said to him. “You guys consider your systems secure enough that I can enter my personal credit card information and incur debt, but not secure enough to stop doing that?” He then said there were also technical reasons that prevented it. Bollocks. If they can cancel an account on his computer, they can do it on mine.

So, adios, XBox Live Gold. I liked the service well enough to pay a few bucks a month for it, but not enough to endure Microsoft’s account management shenanigans.

* This is not actually what happened when I called Microsoft, but a pastiche of bad customer service experiences I’ve had, exaggerated for comic effect. Take that, lawyers.

Hooray for Google!

This afternoon, I noticed that one of my Google Calendars had utterly vanished. I tried all the troubleshooting steps available in their help forum, but it was still gone. I was concerned that I wouldn’t be able to get any real help, based on some of the posts in the forum, but I sent them a note anyway:

I had a calendar named TRCC that is for my church. Today I was logged into
to Google Calendars, and was unable to enter events. I logged out and in
(and cleared cache and cookies), and when I logged back in, the calendar
had vanished altogether. It’s no longer displayed in my Google Calendar
interface, and the page where it is embedded throws an error too: (“Invalid calendar id:“)

It’s showing every sign of being gone altogether, though I certainly didn’t
delete it. 🙁

By the time I made it home, this was waiting in my inbox:

Hi Sean,

Thank you for your note. We’re sorry to hear that you’ve experienced the loss of your calendar’s data. We have reviewed your account, and noted that the calendar ‘TRCC’ had been deleted. Please be assured that we will never delete your calendar data. Your calendar may have been deleted by someone else who had ownership access to this calendar.

We have gone ahead and restored this calendar, and it should now appear in your calendar list. Please keep in mind that you can keep a backup of your events by exporting your calendar data. To do so, follow the instructions at

The Google Team

Sure enough, the Calendar is back intact. Thank you, Google Folk! You have impressed me once again.

Kindle Impressions

I’ve had the opportunity to spend some time with an Amazon Kindle over the past week. The Kindle is Amazon’s attempt to bring book reading and distribution into the 21st century. It’s essentially a small, purpose-built, handheld computer that incorporates several interesting technologies to create a compelling experience for the book lover.

The first distinctive thing about it is the display. Rather than using the LCD or OLED screens that are common on laptops and cell phones, the Kindle uses electronic paper, a display made up of thousands of tiny capsules filled with black and white particles that can be dragged to the top or to the bottom electronically. It functions (and looks) a bit like a high-resolution Magna Doodle.

This screen provides a couple of advantages: first, it gives the kindle a distinctive, book-like appearance. Though the 800×600 display isn’t quite as high-resolution as print, it looks very good, and the four gray scales allow for some basic graphics and diagrams to be included (and some lovely screen savers). One might reasonably wish the background color were a purer white, rather than a light grey, but the constrast ratio is still very high, close to that of a newsprint. Second, the electronic paper display is extremely power-efficient. Because it only draws power when it is changed, the Kindle can run for up to a week on a single charge — something unheard of with emissive displays. Third, because it is reflective, it can be read in all the same conditions one could normally read a book — bright sunlight presents no problems. (The ironic flip side of this advantage is that you need a book light to read it in a dark room.)

The second distinctive thing about the Kindle is that it has a built-in wireless data connection that runs over Amazon’s Whispernet service. Amazon subsidizes the service through device and electronic book sales — it doesn’t cost anything to use. It’s built on the cellular phone network, and therefore has excellent coverage, though the bandwidth is fairly limited. However since it’s used primarily as a delivery mechanism for textual content, that’s rarely a concern. One can use the device to grab a sample of a book from the Kindle store nearly instantly, and can download an entire purchased book within about a minute.

According to the hackers, the software that runs the whole show is largely Java on top of Linux. However, as a user, you’ll never be aware of the fact. The system is controlled with an easy-to-use system of menus which are almost entirely accessed through a little scroll wheel. I gave Kathy (who will be the first to admit that she’s no big fan of technology) 20 seconds of instructions on how to use the scroll wheel while we were driving to San Antonio last week, and she, without further help, kept herself entertained for the two hour car ride downloading sample books, reading, and exploring the device — an impressive testament to its ease-of-use.

There is currently no SDK for the device, so one is limited to running the applications that Amazon ships with it. Amazon has hinted that they might consider creating an SDK in the future, but hasn’t made any official announcements yet. Even so, the Kindle is quite functional. One can, of course, buy and download books from Amazon’s library at rates substantially lower than what one would pay for a hardcover edition. Amazon also has a conversion service where you can send a variety of document types to a special email address and have them converted into a format viewable on the Kindle. It costs $0.10 to have the document sent to your Kindle over Whispernet, but is free if you use the included USB cable to put it on the Kindle yourself. Since the Kindle registers itself as a standard mass storage device, you can transfer files to it easily using a computer with Mac OS, Windows, or Linux with no additional drivers.

Amazon also includes several experimental applications, including a music player, a human-backed question answering service, and, most interesting, a basic web browser. While the browser doesn’t support a lot of advanced features, it works well for browsing well-formatted content, and is even quite usable for some web applications. I’ve been able to update my Twitter while walking home, though haven’t yet convinced it to display my RSS feeds in Google reader. Though the browser isn’t as good as Mobile Safari, its reliance on the cellular network means that I can use it in many more places than the iPod Touch, which relies on having a wireless access point nearby.

While the Kindle has a lot to recommend it, it’s not perfect. The display takes about 3/4 of a second to refresh when you move from page to page. It’s very easy to hit the Next Page and Previous Page buttons by accident. It’s rather homely. Purchased books are wrapped up in DRM. And it’s expensive.

However, by taking advantage of its unique place in the book selling market, Amazon has managed to create the most viable electronic book yet. For the traveler, the reader, or the person who needs convenient access to a reference library, it’s a very compelling product — and a lot of fun.

Fiesta Texas, or How I Got Robbed By Porky Pig

This summer, I’m taking each of the kids out individually for a day on the town. The first of these trips was with Emily. We went to Fiesta Texas, the San Antonio theme park, on (of course) the hottest day of the week.

Spending time with Emily was the best part of the trip. We talked about friends and the drama thereof, favorite places to eat, what’s required to become a licensed tattoo artist, the efficacy of motion-sickness pills, travel, siblings, and more. It was fun to see the shows and ride the rides, though I’m afraid I’m getting to the point in my life where the lavishly choreographed brass and percussion show has more appeal than the vertiginous fighter-jet coaster rides. I particularly enjoyed getting a photo with Pepé le Pew, my long-time favorite of the Looney Tunes gang. Unfortunately, Porky Pig kept trying to horn in on the picture, which prompted me to tell him I was going to Photoshop him out. Since characters in costume aren’t allowed to speak, his only recourse was to smack me, which he readily did.

Unfortunately, Fiesta Texas itself left a bad taste in my mouth, largely due to constant attempts to wring more money out of us. When I bought the tickets for $30/each, I thought it a reasonable price for a full day’s entertainment. But as soon as we arrived, we had to pay another $15 for parking. When we went to our very first ride, we were told we weren’t allowed to bring our backpacks on, but had to put them in a locker, which cost only $1, but which had prominent signs promising that our backpacks would be thrown away if we didn’t retrieve them within 120 minutes. (It’s a good thing lines were fairly short on Wednesdays!) Bringing food or drinks into the park was prohibited, leaving you with little choice but to buy food at their usurious prices: $6 for a slice of pizza was typical of the fare on offer. And even after shelling out all of this money beyond the ticket cost, we were still subjected to advertisements at every corner and on the in-line monitors that used to show cartoons.

While I understand that making money is what businesses exist for, this sort of bait and switch, nickel and dime approach is awfully short sighted. When people leave the park, you want them to be thinking “Wow, what a great time I had!” Instead, I was left with “Holy rhubarb, in spite of careful planning and self control, I was railroaded into spending $40 more than I expected!”

And given that sour note, I don’t think I’ll be going back.

The World’s Ugliest Coffee House

A few days ago, I twittered that the world’s ugliest coffee shop had opened down the street from us. My friends Ron and Heather asked for more information and challenged the shop’s honorific, so I hereby offer these two photos, snapped hastily this morning on my way to work so that the proprietor wouldn’t know that her establishment was being surveilled by the aesthetics police:


The color palette in the first photo was the first thing that tipped us off that the transgression to the eye might surpass mere quotidian ugliness and burst through to something extraordinary.  The Dia de los Muertos meets The Nightmare Before Christmas sculpture below is 8 feet tall, the centerpiece of the courtyard, and quite visually arresting as well. Taking these things together, I think the title of “World’s Ugliest Coffeeshop” is a lock.

That said, I believe that ugly was the goal. It is an artful, calculated awfulness, very much in keeping with the name of the place: Wake The Dead Coffee House. And I must say, the place is great. It’s the second coffee shop in San Marcos (after Tantra) that has really embraced the full English Pub suite of amenities, with nice indoor and outdoor areas, a good selection of beers in addition to the coffees and teas, a ping pong table (plywood, sadly), a projector set up for watching movies, and a music room in development. Where Tantra, however, has a hippie vibe, this one has a bit more of a punk/goth thing going (though neither are too aggressive about it). I’m delighted to have a place within walking distance (about 5 blocks) where I can bring a guitar and have a tea. (Hibiscus mint, one of my favorites, was on offer when we stopped by.) If you live in San Marcos, come check it out!

Sci-Fi Future: Bioengineering

On one of our recent dates, Kathy and I had stopped by the local pet store to browse around a bit. While passing by the fish, I noticed tank full of fish that were even more brightly colored than the usual tropicals. When asked, a salesperson explained to me that they were GloFish: zebra fish that had been genetically engineered to include a fluorescing protein created by a jellyfish gene. Originally created with an eye toward detecting toxic chemical spills, they are even more eye-catching than the photos show.

The next day, I was listening to an episode of WNYC’s excellent Radio Lab program where they discussed some young bioengineers who got tired of having to smell E. Coli, which is notoriously poopie-scented, all day in their lab. They began by introducing wintergreen genes, and soon had minty-fresh E. Coli in their lab. They then went a step further by having the bacteria start producing a banana smell when full grown, so that the scientists could tell if a culture was ready for experimentation with the merest whiff.

And of course, we’ve had genetically modified foods on our supermarket shelves since the early 1990s. Various GM varieties are more disease and pest-resistant than their unmodified counterparts, have higher yields, last longer without added preservatives, and have their vitamin content boosted.

So, in many ways, it seems like we’re at the dawn of a golden age of bioengineering. We’re able to improve on naturally grown foods, we can engineer unpleasant characteristics out of experimental organisms, and we can even tailor our pets to make them more interesting and fun. What’s not to like?

Quite a bit, as it turns out. Lots of people have concerns about bioengineering, and wonder if it may be a Pandora’s Box we might wish closed again once we have pried out its secrets. A few points to consider:

GloFish are patented just like a mechanical invention would be. From their FAQ:

Because fluorescent fish are unique, their sale is covered by a substantial number of patents and pending patent applications. The providers of GloFish® fluorescent fish, 5-D Tropical and Segrest Farms, are the only distributors that have the necessary licenses to produce and market fluorescent fish within the United States. The production of fluorescent fish by any other party, or the sale of any fluorescent fish not originally distributed by 5-D Tropical or Segrest Farms, is strictly prohibited.

The fact that this patent was granted to cover not just a mechanical device or invention, but a form of life, seems like a pretty big leap. (And allows them to charge an order of magnitude more for these GloFish than for their unmodified brethren.) What do we do with patent and copyright law as we plow into this new area of human endeavor? Consider, for example, an excerpt from this article:

If you could duplicate a person other than yourself, who would it be?

This is not a hypothetical question. Human cloning, may allow you to do
that, with or without the clonee’s consent. Once human cloning technology is available all you’ll need is the desired DNA, and that can be very easily obtained: It is called DNA piracy. The ease of stealing DNA for cloning purposes raises the following question: how is the law going to protect my genes and what legal remedies are afforded in such a case.

DNA Copyright Institution Inc., a privately held corporation in San
Francisco, proposes a solution. It promises copyright protection to your
genetic profile for only $1,500. The visionary DNA Copyright institute,
founded by Andre Crump, is trying to persuade celebrities to use its
services to strengthen their legal position should anyone decide to clone
them against their will.

Yep, the folks out in California are already planning for what happens if you get a strand of Cindy Crawford’s hair and decide to make your own Cindy clone using the DNA therein. More troubling, is it possible for corporations to copyright certain genetic sequences? And if so, can they then bring action for infringement against people who have those sequences in their own genome naturally? There are lots of lines to be drawn here, and it’s not always at all clear where they should be scribed.

Once we have the technology, is is OK to genetically engineer Multiple Sclerosis out of our babies? If so, what else can we change while our kids are still on the drawing board? Can we then choose eye color, hair color, and attractiveness? Could we add a few inches of height to give our kid a psychological advantage? Could we add a few more inches to give them an advantage in basketball? Should our modified basketball player be in the same league as non-modified players, or should there be a GMNBA?

And what of biodiversity? Artificial genes from GM crops can “leak” into the wild population. Even without GM, lots of farms have moved to monocultures — the planting of only the single highest-yield variety of their crop. This tendency would likely be exaggerated further if GM crops showed even better yields than their naturally occurring counterparts. This monoculture farming means that an entire crop can be wiped out by a disease to which it happens to be susceptible. Ironically, it also results in having access to less raw genetic material as the less popular strains are bred out of existence.

Finally, what happens when the bioengineers who may have more malevolent intent start fooling around with this stuff? Freeman Dyson, the futurist who conceived that trusty science fiction chestnut the Dyson Sphere, talks about children having access to home genetic engineering kits. This sounds like great fun as long as kids are just making unicorns or, as South Park would have it, a monkey with five butts.

But what happens when we start bioengineering weapons? Little Timmy could toss together a few genes from bird flu, the cold, SARS, bubonic plague, and a dash of smallpox, mix well, and viola! Instant highly-virulent superweapon! Take it further: engineer it to attack specific racial traits, and you could have a Final Solution that would cause history’s atrocities to look wan and insignificant.

It seems that we have discovered a very powerful tool here. As with all powerful tools, it enables us to accomplish amazing things that were previously impossible, but also has the potential to cause irreparable damage if used irresponsibly. Thus, while our enthusiasm here may tempt us to rush in to a Brave New GM World, I think it’s vital that we approach this new territory with caution. Pay attention to these discussions, befriend a bioethicist, and encourage our lawmakers to take these issues seriously. Our children and their unicorns are depending on us.

Bo Jon’s Surf & Gifts: Beware

Sunday, April 20, 2008

This past weekend, the family was down in Port Aransas for Sandfest. As we were leaving town, we decided to stop by Bo Jon’s Surf & Gifts, a big gift shop near one of the central intersections with an entrance made up to look like a shark’s mouth, about 2:00pm. While we were there, Kathy decided to visit the restroom. As she was coming out of the restroom, a large stepladder which had been left propped against the wall fell over and struck Kathy on the head.

I saw the ladder falling, but wasn’t close enough to catch it before it hit her. Kathy immediately sat down on the floor, stunned and hurt. I put the ladder back upright, making sure it was propped far enough from the wall that it wouldn’t fall again. I told the workers at the front desk that the ladder had fallen and struck my wife, and asked for ice. They poured some ice from a drink into a ziploc bag and gave it to us, and Kathy applied it to her head.

One of the counter workers, who turned out to be the owner’s daughter, then called the owner. She then came back over to where Kathy was still sitting on the floor with her head in her hands and, instead of asking after Kathy’s welfare or offering to help, asked us to start filling out an incident report. I grew angry at her, at which point she offered to put the owner (who later identified herself as Christie Maxwell) on the phone. Once on the phone, Ms. Maxwell was immediately hostile, and told me that I was out of line to want to speak with her about the situation. She told me that they always kept the ladder there, and that they had never had an accident before. She eventually agreed to give me the name of the person who handled their insurance, and I told her I would complete the incident report, which I then did.

Kathy was finally feeling well enough to stand up, so we took her out to the car and headed for a medical center that our friend Will had gotten directions to from the store staff. Unfortunately, the directions turned out to be unfollowable, so we ended up asking at convenience stores until we finally found out where the nearest hospital was — about 30 miles from the gift store. We made it there and checked Kathy, who was still in pain, disoriented, and nauseated, in to the Emergency Room.

With the kids all stationed out in the waiting room with our friends Will and April, we ended up staying there for about three hours. The doctor was concerned because of the nausea, and ordered a CAT scan for Kathy. Fortunately, the physical examination and the CAT scans all eventually came back OK, and the doctor discharged us with instructions not to leave Kathy alone for the next 24-48 hours and to wake her periodically during the night to be sure she was still lucid. We lit off for home, finally arriving back in San Marcos around 10:00pm.

Monday, April 21, 2008

8:30am: Called the subrogation department of Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Texas, our health insurance company. They were attentive, polite and helpful, and opened a file on the incident.

8:45am: Called Kathy Estep, the individual who the owner had said was handling their insurance. She was initially cordial, asking after Kathy’s welfare and telling me that she had the form and was filing it with their insurance company. I asked the name of the insurance company, figuring that, like with a car accident, exchanging insurance information was a reasonable thing to do. She said that their procedure was to let the insurance company contact me. I asked again, and she rebuffed me again. “So, to be clear, you’re refusing to give me the name of your insurance company?” I asked. “I’m not refusing anything,” she said, launched into a long verbal tirade during which she wouldn’t allow me to speak and concluded by hanging up on me.

8:53am: Called the City of Port Aransas Building Inspection Department to let them know what had happened and ask if they would mind dropping by and making sure the ladder had been moved someplace safer. The secretary seemed nonplused, but offered to take my number and to call back if she had any further questions.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Our Kathy is nearly back to normal, though she’s still having some headaches, which the Emergency Room doctor told her to expect for a few days.

In spite of Kathy Estep’s assurances, we have heard nothing from the shop’s insurance company. I’ve also heard nothing back from the city’s building inspector.

UPDATE: Monday, April 28, 2008

We still haven’t heard anything from Bo Jon’s insurance company. I called Blue Cross this morning to see if they had, but only ended up mired in their voice mail system. I also sent an email to Joe Lamb, the building inspector in Port Aransas, to ask if his department had an opportunity to check on the safety of the gift shop yet. Waiting on responses from all quarters.

UPDATE: August 2008

Blue Cross eventually must have reached them, because we got a letter from Columbia Insurance Group — the mystery insurance company revealed! — saying that they had been trying to contact us, but had been unsuccessful. (Presumably their efforts were carrier-pigeon based, as we never received any phone messages.) I sent them an email asking what information they needed. Rather than answering that question, they asked for a phone number where we could be reached. I sent them one, then sent them a follow-up email a week later when I heard nothing, then another follow up another week later.

UPDATE: September 5, 2008

I finally got a call from the Insurance company two weeks after sending them my number. Unfortunately, I missed it, and they only left a voice mail with their phone number (which, of course, I already had). I called them back again and got voice mail on their end. Sigh.

UPDATE: December 8, 2008

We’ve been in touch with the insurance company several times, given statements, provided documentation of the hospital visit, and finally got an offer to cover the hospital costs plus a small pain and suffering allowance. (We hadn’t asked for the latter, but it was nice of them to offer it.) We accepted the offer, and have been waiting for several weeks now. We still haven’t received the reimbursement check, but it seems that we’re finally getting close to the end of this.

Interestingly, some friends of the shop’s owner have apparently found this page. We have received several profane comments containing assertions that we never went to the hospital, ad hominem attacks against Kathy and me, and other unpleasantness. (I’ve not posted them, for obvious reasons.)

UPDATE: March 2009

We finally received our settlement check, and were able to reimburse our own insurance company for their costs. (They definitely benefited from the settlement more than we did!) I’m very glad to finally have this done, even though it took nearly a year to sort through it.


I have been deeply disappointed by the response of the shop’s employees, owners, and insurance representative. Their concern at every turn has seemed to be more with protecting themselves than with making their shop safe or helping people hurt because they failed to do so. I understand for the first time in my life the temptation to hire a slimy personal injury lawyer and to try to get something out of a miserable situation like this. (We haven’t succumbed, however.)

Will and April were a tremendous help during this time. Thanks a bunch, you guys.

I will keep updating this post as events warrant. In the meantime, I recommend steering well clear of Bo Jon’s whenever you’re in Port Aransas. We will certainly be doing so from now on.

New Glasses

I just got in two new pairs of glasses from Zenni Optical. Here’s the regular pair, with nifty European-style frames and anti-reflective coating for night driving and computer work:

I look like a spotty Cyrano! Fear my complexion! And my nose!

And the prescription sunglasses, with 80% gray tint and some regular frames:

I think I've achieved a sort of 'fashionable homeless' effect with these.

Total cost for both pairs: about $50. The quality of the glasses seems good, which, combined with the price, makes me a very happy customer.

Catalog Choice

Just a quick post to point out Catalog Choice, a service to allow you to opt-out of receiving paper catalogs in the mail that don’t interest you. You get less junk mail, the catalog companies don’t spend money sending catalogs that just end up in the trash, and trees get a stay of execution. Win-win, baby!

While you’re there, be sure to check out the Environmental Facts section of their site. The statistics are staggering: 8 million tons of trees per year go to catalog printing alone.

iPhone Quest 2007: Success!

My buddy David went down to San Antonio Thursday night to queue up for Apple’s new iPhone. His patience was rewarded not only with successful acquisition of one of the coveted devices, but also with the chance to enjoy his 15 minutes of fame. He received coverage on:

  • My San Antonio: There was also a superb photo of him on their home page last night, but it has subsequently vanished. I hope David got a copy of it!
  • KSAT News: watch the video for a few seconds of interview. David is surprisingly lucid for someone who has been camping out on a sidewalk all night!
  • His own site: also includes links to an auction for the extra iPhone he picked up. Go buy it and help fund David’s upcoming wedding!

Congratulations, David! I’m looking forward to dropping by and playing with the new gadget.

UPDATE: Enjoy Crazy Apple Rumors’ coverage of iPhone night, which doesn’t feature David at all, right here.