Searching for the Moon

Shannon Clark's rambles and conversations on food, geeks, San Francisco and occasionally economics

Archive for September, 2006

Shoes, colds, hacking

Posted by shannonclark on September 29, 2006

Earlier this week my parents visited and among the many small, but important, household/life tasks we completed while they were in town was the purchase of three pairs of new shoes (I purchased them, they just drove me across the bay for lunch with my grandfather and then some shopping). This may sound simple, even trivial, but it is in fact the most new shoes I have ever purchased at a single time in my entire life. And it now means that I am in the very unique for me position of having four pairs of shoes, each with a different look, and all of which fit and are comfortable for serious walking. (and I have a few other pairs that are good for an occasion but less good for serious walking). I’m particularly enjoying a new pair from Timberland that essentially feel as if they made slippers suitable for serious hikes – hard to describe but a seriously great, comfortable shoe, with a slipper like wool lining, extremely lightweight, but also with a serious rubber sole. All in a simple, black shoe that fits with many types of clothes.

Okay, not the most important of things, but it shoes how a relatively small amount of money at the right store will make a large difference. Yes, I know in the US shopping culture this is probably not a revelation, but you have to understand that I really don’t do much shopping or buying, not that I mind doing either, but more that I have spent much of the past year simplifying and removing items from my life, without much time (or money) spent on buying new items).

For the past three days, however, I have not had much of a chance to enjoy my new shoes or my much improved apartment (photos will be coming soon, my new table is really cool) as I have been suffering from a seriously nasty cold. The kind that rendered me unable to taste for nearly 24 hrs (so unable to taste that I could eat a Reed’s Ginger Candy and not notice the flavor, try it, you’ll see what that means in terms of how stuffed up I was).

Tomorrow I hope to attend Yahoo’s Hack Day and Developer Day, it should be a really fun day of talks and discussions followed by 24hrs of hacking all night long at Yahoo’s campus in Sunnyvale I have some ideas I want to pursue, but mostly I plan on watching, talking, and helping out one or more teams, it should be good to spend some time seriously coding and exploring what you can do these days, been way way too long since I did any real coding. (and if I get really inspired I may spend some time getting lots of my old code that is not working working again, simple stuff but something I have been putting off for way too long).

Posted in geeks | Leave a Comment »

The value of wordpress.com for google rank

Posted by shannonclark on September 28, 2006

A few weeks back I migrated my blog, which for many years had been at blogger.com to wordpress.com. And since I have done so, I have noticed a handful of odd effects, most noticible being that many of my posts here are now showing up in the top 10 google searches for a wide variety of topics, many of which are somewhat surprising.

For example, do the google search for “OED Words” ( and note where I show up)

My old blog at blogger.com doesn’t show up at all, or if it does it is many, many pages into the search results.

Posted in geeks | 1 Comment »

Food, Feast, Zen Noir, writing and reading

Posted by shannonclark on September 25, 2006

Or a summary of my weekend and thoughts

For the past couple of weeks I have been in a bit of a semi-daze, trying to get something organized for OneWebDay and generally trying to finish settling into my new life in San Francisco as a single (straight) bachelor. I’ve been wandering the city, eating well if at odd hours and generally alone, and I’ve caught a few movies (and read more than a few books, some even good ones).

On Friday I saw the SF Premiere of the long awaited movie Feast which was fun, gory, a bit chaotic and relatively low budget, but enjoyable none-the-less. Not quite as “comedy/horror/gore” as I had hoped, a bit too “straight” but fun with an edge and clear sense of humor – so I’m glad to have seen it, and a midnight showing seems somehow appropriate (I saw it at the Clay Theater in Pacific Heights, an old theater now owned by Landmark).

Tonight I saw the movie Zen Noir which was, as the title might give it away a zen take on a film noir detective story. Not an entirely perfect take on either subject, but definitely interesting, though I was unhappy with the amount of flashbacks that were employed (I tend to think these are a sign of a somewhat lazy/cheap director, rather than new scenes to move the story forward they rehash old images and scenes – which for me usually disturbs the overall impression and sensation of the movie with the reminder that it is, afterall, a film). On the otherhand, I’ll probably never quite look at an orange (or eat one) in quite the same way again.

I am an aethist and an existentialist, however I have a lot of sympathy and resonance with Zen Practice. Besides being a fan of the great book, “Zen and Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” I am a huge fan of the deeply Zen influenced works of Natalie Goldberg. Her book, “Writing Down the Bones” is my vote for the best book on the practice of writing that I know – and one that I periodically return to for inspiration. So I enjoyed this slice of life (and death) from a zen perspective.

When I moved to San Francisco one of my first goals (among many others) was to find a replacement for some of my favorite restaurants in Chicago, the places I would turn to week after week when I was hungry, eating alone (or less often with friends) and needed specific, favorite types of meals. One of which is good Korean food. In Chicago, my favorite by far is “24hr Korean Restaurant”, which is, as the name suggests, open 24hrs and a place that since the early 90’s when I was in college at the University of Chicago been a place I would eat at nearly once a week. They were closed for a bit over a year when their kitchen burned and I waited for them to reopen.

So I have been looking for a replacement here in the bay area, and I have tried quite a few spots. Some good ones in the East Bay (in Oakland), some great places in the Richmond (but not all that easy for me to get to on a regular basis from Noe Valley via bus), so for the moment my current favorites are all in Japantown, where there are quite a few great Korean restaurants. While I like Korea House, a bit better than most of the others, my current favorite is a small, newer place, DooBu (which is at 1723 Buchanan St, San Francisco CA 94115, 415.292.6002 but doesn’t seem to have a website yet).

The food is uniformly excellent and while the menu has only a handful of options they are all executed with a care and quality level that is much higher than every other Korean Restaurant I have been to so far in the area – and they include a bunch of dishes with each meal that I don’t usually see – specifically a deep fried and extremely tasty whole small fish, and a very rich soup with prawns and small clams, a small dish of japchae (noodles), on top of a small but very tasty selection of panchan and rice.  Highly recommended – though they are not a place for “cook at your table” – they are a fantastic addition to the city’s dining options.

And while I have been wandering the city this week, I have had some amazing coffee, both a great cup prepared by Phil himself from Philz when I wandered in, planning on buying their very excellent mint tea, but Phil convinced me that I should get his coffee instead – and he’s right, it is possibly the best cup of coffee I’ve ever had.

But that’s coffee (albeit amazingly good coffee), even Phil approved of my other top choices in San Francisco, Blue Bottle and Ritual Coffee. I haven’t been to Blue Bottle lately, but I have been greatly enjoying double lattes from Ritual Coffee Roasters which is possibly even better (though it is a worthy and tight competition) than Intelligentsia Coffee in Chicago (who have baristas who have won national competitions multiple times).

Tomorrow my parents visit San Francisco, my furniture from Artisan Burlwood finally arrives, I pay more than a few bills and old debts, and I’ll be getting a delivery of various semi-random kitchen items from my grandmother (delivered by my parents who are driving up the coast from Santa Barbara where they were visiting my grandmother). So it should be a busy start to the week. After they arrive and drop off the dishes etc and see my place for the first time, we’re going to do some shopping and touring of San Francisco then will have a late dinner at one of the many restaurants I have been meaning to try for a long time, The Richmond which is the type of restaurant we all love, local produce prepared with great care by a chef with a passion in a friendly, neighborhood setting. I’ll report more after we eat.

On Tuesday we’ll be going to another spot I’ve noticed, Bushi Tei, a french-japanese fusion restaurant in JapanTown with walls and interiors from a 150 year old restaurant from Japan, but rearranged in a very modern style. We may get the chef’s omikasa tasting with wine pairings, or we may try to rather spectacular ala carte menu, it will be a tough but pleasant decision.

During the day we’ll do more touring and shopping and will be visiting my grandfather and his wife in Marin for lunch. All in all it should be a pleasant couple of days visiting with my parents and it will be very nice to have family around – and to have their help in organizing and decorating my new apartment. There are any number of tasks where a second pair of hands (not to mention a rental car) will make the tasks much, much easier. Little things like buying curtains, possibly some rugs, dressers, mirrors, etc.

I’ve been reading a lot lately, not owning a TV means that I have more time. I’ll give more detailed reviews in the future, but unfortunately (well not too) I have been buying more books than I have been reading – on Saturday I went to Borderlands Books for the 11th anniversary party for Tachyon Publications where my friend Tim Pratt won the Joshua Norton Award (and signed his book, The Strange Adventures of Rangergirl,  out in trade paperback for me). So that goes towards the top of my “to be read” pile.

My current reading (fiction) is another book I picked up this weekend, Variable Star by Robert Heinlein and Spider Robinson (yes, a new book by Robert Heinlein, Spider Robinson was asked to finish an unfinished novel outline, the results are so far at least very, very good) I’ve also recently finished books by Terry Prachett and Michael Stackpole.

In a few weeks I will be traveling to the East Coast, to the Washington DC area and then, I hope to also get to NYC. If possibly I should have a free day for visits in the DC area, then a couple of days in NYC. I may try to arrange for a MeshWalk NYC while I’m there. My goal is to have a book proposal written before I leave for DC, so that will be my primary task for the next few weeks! Wish me luck (and intros to agents or publishers are always welcome!)

Posted in onewebday, reading, restaurants, reviews, San Francisco | Leave a Comment »

Important bill on federal spending

Posted by shannonclark on September 18, 2006

Take a look at this announcement –
http://obama.senate.gov/news/060909-bloggers_help_obama_pass_senate_pork_bill/index.html

And take a listen to Barak Obama’s podcast on the topic as well. He specifically cites the important role bloggers played in this, as well as lots of support from organizations across the politial spectrum.

http://obama.senate.gov/podcast/

(a side note, I’d point to Barak Obama’s website as one of the best uses of technology by a politician that I’m aware of, he blogs, podcasts and has a very easy to navigate and use website, clearly one that the maintaining of is a high priority)

A simple step, but one that hopefully will help – and something I’d think the Sunlight Foundation will be all over (in a very positive way).

A quote from the story on it

The victory for Obama and Coburn demonstrated the growing power of the Internet in influencing
legislation. Their bill would make it easier for Americans to use computers to quickly discover how their money is being spent, and particularly who is benefiting most from the federal budget.

and

Information on federal spending is widely available on the Web, but the Obama-Coburn bill would make it easier to search for and monitor spending. “By helping to lift the veil of secrecy in Washington, this database will help make us better legislators, reporters better journalists and voters more active citizens,” Obama said in a statement. “It’s both unusual and encouraging to see interest groups and bloggers on the left and the right come together to achieve results.”

Note that Coburn is a pretty serious conservative and that once President Bush signs this (the House and Senate both passed it on voice votes) this measure will be Obama’s first bill since he was elected in 2004. I’d personally say a pretty important one – making all federal contracts available in a searchable database on the web is something I’m frankly shocked (though not too shocked) hasn’t already been done and that it took a law to make it happen – but I can only imagine the impact it could have over time in holding the government much more accountable for spending – especially patterns of spending as well as earmarks.

Posted in politics | Leave a Comment »

One Web Day – a celebration of the Internet

Posted by shannonclark on September 15, 2006

On Sept 22nd of 2006 the first global One Web Day will be celebrated. One Web Day is a day to celebrate the Internet and the impact the web has had on the globe. In the Bay Area, Susan Crawford, the founder of One Web Day, has asked me to help organize a series of events in San Francisco. As part of these celebrations people across the city (and the globe) are being asked to share how the Internet has impacted their lives and the world around them.

In the rest of this post I summarize a bit of how the Internet has, since 1991, played a critical role in my life and career.
In the 1988 I took an AP computer science class at my high school. All of the programming for the class took place on a PDP11 computer, one that also ran the school’s library card catalog. As we learned programming, we also built and used a variety of bulliten board tools many migrated from the PC’s of the day for our use as a class. We also had a simple, locally restricted email and messaging capabilities. For the next three years I, along with many of my friends, made extensive use of the school’s computer lab, building our own games and other applications.

In 1991 I entered the University of Chicago uncertain of what field I would choose to study. Since two of the subjects that interested me were Mathematics and Physics, and since I had spend that summer working as an intern at Argonne National Labs where I had done extensive work within Mathematica, I wanted a computer for college that would have Mathematica while also having sufficient other tools for the wordprocessing etc I would need to get through school. While not cheap, I made an investment then that shaped the rest of my life, I bought a used NeXT Cube which would be my computer for the next couple of years.

Sitting under my desk in my dorm room, my NeXT boxed, which I named Collatz, had an ethernet connection to the Internet (and a static IP address) from which I hosted what was then one of the largest MuCK’s in the world. In those early days of the Internet I recall looking up for people how to route email from one network to another (specifically from the Internet to Compuserve being a common request). I used Gopher extensively and encountered the first pages of the world wide web (from gopherspace links to CERN). I used Lynx as my primary browser for many, many years.

When I left the college dorms I sold Collatz to one of my fellow “gods” on the MuCK (who then used it for many more years to host the MuCK) and purchased my first laptop, a Compaq 386. Since about 1993 a laptop has been my primary computer for all of that time. First the Compaq, then a few years later I bought an early Sony VIAO. Then in 2000 when I started my company, JigZaw Inc, we purchased a number of Dell computers, though I still used my Sony VIAO primarily only migrating to a Dell for a short time (and using a Dell desktop while in the office). In 2003 I purchased my current IBM Thinkpad, historically I have kept my laptops for about 4 years each (though I only finally disposed of most of the laptops earlier this year when I moved to the Bay Area). As I blogged earlier today, I am now shopping for my next couple of personal computers.

Since at least 2000 I have also had a cell phone that offered data access to the web, at least to email, and over the years my voice minutes and usage has gone down while my data access has consistently gone up. In the fall of 2004 I started downloading a lot of podcasts. Since I was very young I had been an avid radio listener, listening each morning, most evenings and much of the daytime, especially as I walked around. In 2005 that stopped when i got my iPod shuffle and my listening habits shifted entirely to listening to podcasts – I now subscribe to over 40 podcasts and on an average day I download hundreds of mbs of podcasts and listen to some 300+ mbs of podcasts.

And when I moved to the Bay Area in January of 2006 I did not move my TV, so since then (and really most of that fall as well) I have lived without a television. My entertainment now comes from books (average of a couple of books a week), occasional movies and the Internet. In all my moves this past year many of my magazine subscriptions have lapsed or not kept up with, so while I still read the New Yorker on a weekly basis, my other subscriptions are only to technology publications (including Wired), so I rely almost entirely on the Internet for my news and current events information as well.

At Gnomedex this year I won an XBOX 360 though all summer it has sat, unopened, as I have not had a screen to use it on. This fall, I anticipate changing that so some of my entertainment may soon be shifting to the XBOX, but while I will probably play some games offline, I am most looking forward to exploring the worlds of XBOX Live.

So far I have resisted the lure of online games such as World of Warcraft, though as Joi Ito points out, it shows signs of being the tech crowd’s golf. I’ve also managed, again so far, to avoid Second Life though it is remarkably like ideas I had in the mid-1990’s (but never seriously pursued beyond paper business plans stages). And while I do have accounts on AIM, Yahoo, MSN, Gtalk, and Skype (and a few others I don’t use such as IRC) I only occasionally use anything other than Skype, and even that is pretty sporadic.

In the early 1990’s I received about 80-100 emails a day. Now on my primary account I receive about 400 emails a day, averaging a couple of megabytes (or more) each day. Yes, some of those messages are spam but a surprisingly large number of them are not. While I do visit more websites on a typical day than many (probably averaging close to 20 or more different domains  a day) most of my online activity is concentrated on a few sites – gmail, bloglines, my own blogs, google calendar, and my.yahoo.com (and a few different sites tailored to cell phones on my phone).

Needless to say, the Internet has more than shaped how I live my life, in a very real sense it is my career and much of my life – my entertainment, my information, my communication channels to friends and family. I’ve bought and sold extensively online, I can’t recall the last time I booked travel in any way other than online, and even most of my dates have been at least enhanced by online exchanges. When I am out of the house, i rely on Google Maps on my cell phone for directions, google search from my phone’s browser to look up information (if I don’t have it in my gmail account which I access from my phone).

How has the Internet changed or impacted your life?

Posted in digital bedouin, geeks, internet, onewebday | 1 Comment »

My next computer – some thoughts

Posted by shannonclark on September 15, 2006

On Web Worker Daily today there is a great discussion about some of the tools available for a Mac that help make it a great (from a software perspective) platform for mobile workers.

I’m in a position where I may soon have to replace/update my current laptop (an IBM Thinkpad about to leave warantee coverage in a month or two). My problem is that I haven’t actually seen too many newer systems (including Macs) that have all the features I use/need.

Specifically my current configuration is an IBM Thinkpad T40, 1.5gb of ram, a 1400×1050 resolution monitor, battery life of 5-6+ hours (with a fresh extended life battery, my 1+ year old battery still gets between 4 and 5 hours), a multibutton mouse and a trackpoint. And all this in a package that weighs about 5.5lbs and less then 6lbs even with the power supply. (and it has built in bluetooth, wifi, an actually good built-in microphone and decent sound and graphics capabilities)

While I probably could adjust to the lack of the trackpoint or multiple buttons (but I’d rather not) on a mac, my major problems are weight, battery life and especially screen resolution. To get a comperable screen resolution I would need to get at least a 15″ and better yet a 17″ macbook pro, and that then means at least another 1lb to a 1 1/2lbs in carry weight and worse battery life.

And even with non-mac options it seems most laptops still have lower resolution screens than my current system (and while they may now have faster processors most still also come with a default of lower memory, smaller hard drives than my 80gb drive, and worse battery life in most cases).

My ideal system would be <5lbs, with a screen that has at least 1400×1000 resolution (and higher is better), battery life of at least 6 hours, a keyboard as good as the IBM/Lenovo thinkpad keyboards (which I think are about the best keyboards at least for laptops out there) and as functional a layout for other features – like the mouse – as my current system. Even better would be a system that also had tablet PC capabilities as the ability to sketch with a pen is really very valuable (but nearly no tablets at least the last time I checked come with 1400+ resolution).

And I don’t want to sacrifice the built-in microphone etc. (a friend’s Fujitsu that is otherwise nearly identical in specifications to my system was missing a built in microphone which made simple tools like Skype much, much harder to use comfortably).

I will always need a laptop, I’m far too mobile to just get by with my cell phone (even if it is a great Cingular 2125 – i.e a scoblephone) I need to work in a mobile environment frequently. But as well as I try to do more and more my biggest impediment iis a lack of pixels. I need many many many more pixels (and many gb’s more of disk storage) if I am to accomplish even half of the things I want to do this year. So while I may need to replace this laptop, i also need to get a new desktop soon as well.

I’m seriously considering one of the new iMac 24″ models. Though the fact that I would be capped out at 500gbs of internal storage, while it sounds like a lot does give me very real pause – and even 24″ at 1900+ resolution may not be enough pixels for all that I want to work on (though adding a second 23″ monitor might just about do the trick). But disk storage is an issue I would have to resolve.

You might ask why?

Well for starters I routinely download about 400mbs (or often 500+mbs) of content EVERY day. While I download I typically also delete 400+mbs of content I have already consumed so my library of content doesn’t actually grow all that much (some days I download less or weed out older/unlistened to content) but this is a trend I see only increasing as I download more video content as well as more audio content.

Then I plan on a number of media projects in the upcoming months and year. From podcasts I will product to video editing from events I organize my media generation will increase dramatically in the upcoming months.

And that doesn’t include testing any applications I will also be working on, which includes many that could need 100’s of gbs of data to analyze (though eventually most would be run on a server farm somewhere I’d still like to have local copies to demo as well as to develop against/on).

Not to mention that I’ll want to dual or even more probably triple boot pretty soon. In a few weeks I hope to install Vista on at least one machine to start testing that, if I use a mac I’ll have OSX (and will be planning on migrating to Leopard when it is released), and I seriously need to have least one system running one of the latest builds of a Linux distribution as well (Ubuntu or SUSE most likely though I’ll look at others – and many of the new GUI features of some of the latest UI’s for Linux seem very seriously productive to explore). And having used a Tablet PC (borrowed) at Gnomedex I do see some very real value to having a pen interface for capturing ideas.
So I anticipate this being an expensive fall for me from a technology perspective. Almost certainly a new desktop, quite possibly a Tablet PC (would be amazing if Apple were to offer one….) and in addition a new digital camera, podcast recording gear, microphones, great headphones, a digital HD quality projector (and screen) and quite possibily a digital video recorder as well.

(if you have some consulting work for me….call, email, leave a comment)

Posted in digital bedouin, mac, mobile, tablet pc, working | 1 Comment »

The new office, a walk down the sidewalk

Posted by shannonclark on September 6, 2006

So this afternoon I was walking, too far, to pick up a MUNI pass for the month and then to sit and do some work from my “backup” office, a local Starbucks, when I wandered by Niall Kennedy and Om Malik sitting outside in front of a Starbucks in downtown San Francisco.

We chatted for a while about the mobile office and worker. Earlier today Om launched Web Worker Daily which is a new group blog about the mobile worker, Niall contributed one of the first posts about a discussion of cafes here on the West Coast.

My contribution was a suggestion that I had blogged about last year on my other blog, the idea of Solos Working Alone Together which is for a group of independants to all pick a café and time and to meet there each week (or a couple of times each week) and work on their own projects, but in a common shared space. I’d like to start something like this here in San Francisco, so suggestions for where (and when) are appreciated.

Posted in mobile, working | Leave a Comment »

Customer dis(ervice) – a tangled tale of moving

Posted by shannonclark on September 1, 2006

Today I have dealt with paperwork (and via proxies people) from 4 different mortgage companies, a title company, lawyers, three different banks, one brokerage, one utility, one airline and one phone company.

Of all of those firms TWO firms and two alone had the right attitude and complete competance to serve me quickly, rapidly, professionally and logically (The brokerage, Charles Schwab, and the airline, Southwest. A couple of the mortgage firms were neither good nor bad, all of the other firms were uniformly so bad as to be laughable.

Most tellingly as an observer of business I see a ton of places where these firms are so bad at customer service that, were it possible (and it may be) I will not only cease being a customer of those firms but will actively seek to dissuade others from using these firms. Further, these experiences which I will document (only in part – service this bad really needed to have been recorded for posterity) show some really fundemental flaws with how many big businesses are structured, flaws that I think will seriously cripple them in the future.

When I start investing the money recently deposited at the brokerage, in fact, I may take a serious look at how to play my negative expectations of these firms (and their sectors).

On to the dis(ervice)…

My first experience of the day was very early, on the CTA (Chicago Transit Authority)’s El train headed into the city, we had just passed the stop before my stop, the Chicago Loop was in sight, and I was ready to get off, stop at a café and get a coffee, and arrive at the Title Company’s offices with plenty of time to spare. Instead, the train ground to a halt and stopped, we stayed motionless for about 15 minutes, then moved about 100 feet only to stop again for another 5-10 minutes, when finally nearly 25 minutes late we arrived at the station. Not, as I had planned before 8:30am but at nearly 8:50am.

This morning I, finally, sold my condo in Chicago. At the closing, which took far too long due to various changes and waiting on hold that was required (mostly on the part of the buyer’s two mortgage companies) most of the closing went relatively smoothly, if not entirely as I wanted (ended up with more fees than I expected to have to pay and various other factors that combined to result in a few thousand less as my net than I anticipated, but all in all I did make a very real profit on my first sale of real estate (nearly 10 years after I bought it). However, as I went to decide how I would take my payment I faced the following options.

Option one, a check from the Title Company (a regular check, not an “official” or “certified” check as I probably should have insisted upon).

Or

Option two, a wire transfer for which service they would charge me a further $25 fee.

I called my bank, trying to determine how long they would take to deposit my check (the title company kept insisting that some banks would treat their check as a certified check – as indeed they probably should as the money had indeed that morning been made available). My bank informed me (at least the phone service person I finally reached) that there was a FEE for RECEIVING a wire transfer (she couldn’t, however, easily tell me WHAT that fee was – just that there was a fee). So given that I had just spent the morning paying lots of fees for services I really didn’t want to pay for, I chose the check.

However this meant that walking out of the office I was carrying the second largest check I have ever held, made out to me, in my simple messenger bag (the biggest check was the initial angel investment in my startup, and that wasn’t made out to me). Now came my next bit of “fun”.

I had to find a branch of my bank, and, I thought, make a simple (if very large) deposit – followed up with a conversation about what options I had with that money (cd’s, money markets, etc). I tried to remember where the bank branch was, called a friend with easy access to a phonebook and she informed me that there was a location nearly next door to the title company (however on entering that building the guards clarified for me that it was only a mortgage/home loan office and the nearest office was a few blocks away. However in that building was a second bank that I also had to visit to run yet another errand (closing an Illinois account for a non-profit I started).

So I went in, signed my name to the sign-in form for the customer service. And I sat down. And waited. And waited. Waited some more. Watched the depressing example of terrible parenting a too young mother was displaying (I think she was the mother, but the mother could have been the other woman in the group who was the one opening up a series of accounts). The toddler, not yet walking, wanted to crawl around and explore the bank floor and waiting area – perfectly natural, even healthy urges for a child of that age. Instead the woman would stop the child just as he was getting ready to crawl and indicate to him “chill”. repeating this frequently as I watched. Periodically giving the child a cell phone to look at, only to take it from him equally quickly. Then the child, not surprisingly started to make noises and almost cry. So the woman fed him, first a bottle then later when he was crying some more a sweet sucker (all the while commenting that he was getting fat – wonder why…). A bit later he was allowed to crawl a bit and came over near me, happy to entertain him and hoping that some engagement might quiet him I indicated that I didn’t mind that he was crawling towards me. Just as he was near me, however, she let him briefly engage – then quickly picked him up and sat down again. Sad. I’m not a parent, but I hope that when I am, that I will recall this poor example and find ways to allow my children (boys or girls) to be engaged by the world from a very early age, not to discourage them from exploring (while still teaching them what they can/can’t do) and I hope, to resist the easy way out of overfeeding.

So after a long time of that, I stood up and stretched a bit and finally caught the attention of one of the bankers. He then proceeded to be pretty helpful, gave me the forms to close my account, looked up the balance and gave me the form to change the mailing address. And the other banker then happily helped me get a cashiers check for the balance. So once engaged the service (in person) was good, but very very slow.

Confident (foolishly) that the next bank stop would be even easier and faster, I called a friend with whom I had tentative plans to meet for lunch, and we set up a time to reconnect of around 1pm (or about 45 minutes later, plenty of time I thought. But now I had to find the bank branch. I tried to follow the guard’s directions, got to the right street, but having misheard him I thought the address was an odd number (not the even number it turns out to have been) so I walked around in a bit of a circle not seeing the branch.

I then had my next, of many more to come, phone tree experience. Winding my way through my bank (Washington Mutual)’s phone tree, I tried to find the “locate a branch” option – getting first a computer that took me repeating myself three times with each step to figure out that I was in Chicago, looking for a financial services branch, only to fail when I entered the intersection I was standing at, it then transferred me to a woman. I spoke with her quickly, telling her what I needed, and she replied with two options, neither of which were, in fact, in the Chicago Loop. I then asked her directions to one of them and she proceeded to quote (from MapQuest per her statement) directions which started by turning down a street that as a 23+ year Chicago native, I had never heard of or encountered before downtown (and I’ve walked, literally, up and down every street in the loop at least once). I gave up and finally asked her to transfer me to the branch directly. She did and when I spoke to the branch, they quickly told me the correct address of the branch (which didn’t show up on the “mapquest search”) and which was just a few blocks from where I was when I called.

I entered that branch, waited in line behind five other people, and approached the single teller who was working at that point. I had two checks to deposit, for a combined very, very large amount. However, while one was a certified check and would be credited to my account overnight, the other much larger check would be considered “out of state” (though it was an Illinois check and the branch I was in was an Illinois branch) since my account had been opened in CA the check would be out of state for my account. She then told me that the funds would take 7 days to clear (and even at 4% interest this would mean a very real loss on my part, not to mention the funds would be in limbo until they cleared). Uniterested in this, I decided to not deposit that check at WaMu and instead just deposited the one check and was out of there.

I next tried to find a location for Charles Schwab (as the branch I used to use has since closed – more on Chicago’s downtown office/store closings in a different post). While I searched I walked and entered into a branch of Bank of America. I figured, Bank of America has a strong presense in San Francisco, so perhaps I could open up a new account with the proceeds of my sale and get better service than I was getting at WaMu.

Here, I encountered my next piece of absolutely crazy (bad) customer service.

We are the Illinois branch, if you open up an account here you won’t be able to access the funds in California as our CA bank uses different account numbers and we’re not yet integrated so we can’t open up CA accounts in Illinois”

Yup. A national bank, Bank of America, told me that internally they can’t deal with customers of their bank from any state for any state. Instead if you want to, say deposit almost the FDIC limit into a new account, but happen to be doing that NOT in your (new) home state, you are just out of luck – they can’t figure out how to handle their divisions (all with the SAME branding mind you) as one, merged entity. Needless to say, I didn’t take them up on this rather shocking display of completely horrible service.

Finally I reached Charles Schwab, first on the phone, then in person. On the phone the local (they published their local branch phone number on their website where my mom was able to look it up and relay the local number to me) agent was able to very rapidly explain to me what they would be – I could deposit the check, start investing with it immediately, but couldn’t write a check against it for 5 business days. But yes, I could immediately sweep the funds into an interest earning investment and that wasn’t a problem – heck they expected me to do it.

I found the branch and walked in. No line for customer service and the representative at the front was able to immediately establish who I was, look up all three of my accounts, and as quickly as I asked start handling my requests – change of addresses for all of my accounts, the deposit, change of my contact phone numbers etc. He was quick and highly professional (which makes some sense, as he noted as we spoke, everyone at that office was a licensed stockbroker – so though he was at the front reception desk, he was able to immediately and professionally help me.

With my check deposited, addresses changed, new checks ordered, and identity verified (and then any written documents with private data immediately shredded) he asked if I wanted to meet with someone for some suggestions and offered one immediate suggestion of a money market fund that would earn nearly 5% interest and be price stable and easy to enter (and exit when I needed cash). As I sat down, he asked if I would like anything to drink and then got me a cold can of coke while I waited. I then sat comfortably and met with a broker who will be getting back to me with some suggestions for how to balance my various accounts (retirement, personal etc) to meet my short and long term goals for these funds. My funds being transferred tonight into the money market fund where they will earn 5% interest until I decide what other investments I wish to make.

This is how customer service SHOULD work. One person for the customer to deal with who, empowered by training and great technology, is able to handle the multitude of requirements for a given customer (i.e. take a deposit, change some addresses and contact details, order new checks, make investments etc). All done in a professional manner which conveys how much the company wants my business (and noteably in this case a deposit that was about 1000x what I had in my personal account at the moment). All also done immediately, but discretely and securely (verified my identity through photo id as well as requests for information etc.)

Unfortunately until a few minutes ago when I changed my flight home details on Southwest (which took all of a few minutes on their immediate and quick website – a truly painless process to pick a different flight and flying home date – highly recommended) this would be my only good customer service experience of the day.

Next was cancelling my ComEd service. ComEd (an Exelon company) is the primary power company in Illinois. I had my bills, so rather naively I assumed that by calling the customer service number I would be able to reach a human being and take care of my two tasks – one, pay what I owed them and two, cancel service to prepare the service for being started by the buyer. Simple, yet not simple at all. First came the over 10 attempts to navigate the phone tree from hell.

No way to go back to the previous menu.

Countless times when it asked for data points (like account numbers) or in one case “payment amount” (withou reference to, say, how much I owed) and at no point was the behavior explained, anticipated or clear. Some times when I entered my account details and confirmed my address I would be directed to still more phone prompts. But finally on about the 10th attempt, I found a path through to a human being (after the dance of my billing phone number and address being confirmed).

He was, in fact, able to cancel my service and even update their billing address for me.

But, when I asked “can I pay you as well” he said “nope, that’s a different phone number, which he then gave me” and, oh yes, he informed me that for the “convienance” of paying on the phone I would charged a $3.50 fee. Yup, I had to pay more to pay them quickly and easily. At this point I gave up, I’ll wait for the final bill and just pay that.

Next was AT&T (or what I still want to call Ameritech, then SBC, now AT&T).

Quick – guess what detail is MISSING from the “Customer Support Page” at att.com? The one for “Residential Help and Support”? (hint, they are the PHONE company – see http://att.sbc.com/gen/general?pid=5395 for yourself)

If you guessed, a PHONE number – you win.

I finally, after much poking and searching (which turns up nothing useful for a search such as “cancel phone service” btw) found a phone number to call for customer support.

I called it.

A machine asked whether I was calling about the number they detected (my CA Cingular phone number), I said “no” and then it asked me for the number I was calling about, which I gave it after much pain. It then asked what I was calling about, I said “cancelling service” and finally got it to understand that.

At which point it transferred me to a representative, however not until I had wated on hold for well over 10 minutes. That rep, once I got her on the phone, asked what I was calling about (so much for telling the phone tree) and then informed me “oh, this is the CA support, we can’t help you with an Illinois number, let me transfer you.”

I was then asked which of three Midwest states I was calling about, I told the system, and I then waited for a little while before speaking with someone.  Who, it turns out ALSO couldn’t “cancel” a phone – instead she had to transfer me yet again to another group. Which, as I waited was described as the “transfer a number” group (which I did not want to do). When I spoke with this group, after a wait of about 5+ minutes, I was, in fact, able to cancel my Chicago home number.

However, when I asked, can I pay my bill (and can I change the mailing address) I was told Nope, we don’t take payments here but when we’re done I can transfer you to collections…

I declined. Again, I’ll just pay them when the final bill(s) show up next month.

More when I’m rested – but needless to say, a crazy, tiring day.

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