Searching for the Moon

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

Archive for May, 2007

Visiting Chicago – join me for dinner on Wednesday

Posted by shannonclark on May 29, 2007

I am in Chicago this week catching up with friends, networking, and working. Today (Tuesday) I will be in the city most of the day. Wednesday during the day I will be mostly in Evanston.

On Wednesday night I am organizing a dinner for friends (old and new) at TAC Quick in Chicago. RSVP to me directly or via upcoming if you want to join us.

While I am in town I would love to meet up with people for coffee or lunch, drop me a line if you are around/reading this and have time to meet (or leave a comment here)

Posted in personal, restaurants | 4 Comments »

United Airlines – it’s not time to fly

Posted by shannonclark on May 25, 2007

I will never, if I can avoid it, give another dime of my money to United Airlines. And I encourage all of you to avoid them as well.

This is the tale to date of my problems with United Airlines this Memorial Day weekend 2007.

This weekend I am in Madison Wisconsin for a convention. I planned to fly here yesterday from San Francisco on one of the few airlines which fly into Madison, United (well via their United Express division which flies to Madison from O’Hare in Chicago). My flight from San Francisco to Chicago was fine, very full but left on time and even arrived a few minutes early (though I did have to pay a lot to sit in almost the last row and have only a few cookies to eat – not being willing to pay $5 for the offered boxes of random food).

However the problems arose after I arrived in Chicago. I went first to the gate for my next flight, though I had a couple of hours before it would leave. I checked two things – one if there was an earlier flight which I might catch (since we had arrived a bit early) and that the 2:45pm flight I was supposed to be on was on time. At a bit after noon I was told that there was no earlier flights and that my flight was running on time. So I went and got lunch.

I then returned around 2pm, only to overhear the gate agent very quietly telling people that the flight to Madison was canceled (note that no public announcement, at least that I heard was made to this effect). I waited in line for the single gate agent, growing increasingly annoyed at this point. I finally reached her, only to lose my temper a bit as she seemingly refused to give me any information or good options (she was telling the other passengers that the next flight was already full and on standby, but would probably go – our flight having been canceled for wind sheer problems), she mentioned a bus as an option but would not (or perhaps could not) tell me when it was or how to both catch it and get United to pay for it. Nor could she tell me what would happen with my bag which I had checked (more on that in a bit).

I lost my temper. She refused to talk further with me and directed me to “customer service” at Gate 18. As I was racing off there and picking up my bags which were on a nearby seat, another United (I think) employee approached me. Tried to answer some of my questions – but mostly threatened me with the Chicago Police if I remained not calm (though at this point I was calm, was not cursing at him but was definitely not using a quiet tone to my voice – I was angry with United).

I broke off with him and went to Gate 18, calling my family who live in Chicago (and who could look up the bus schedule on a computer) as I walked. As I got to the line for the customer service my father called me back with the bus details – in the parking lot in 10 minutes there was a bus leaving for Madison.

I gave up on the literally over 100 person long line for United Customer Service (apparently not just the canceled flight had caused that – but also other flights which had been late causing lots of people to miss their connections) and ran, literally, to the bus. I got there with about 30 seconds to spare, paid my $25 and got a seat next to friends who it turns out were on the same bus.

On the bus about an hour later United Airlines (well their computer) called me to inform me that I had be rebooked on the 8:30 AM flight on May 25th from Chicago to Madison. The voice then gave me an 800 # to call and promptly hung up, having only said the phone number once – and very very quickly at that (why it could not at the minimum repeat a phone number more than once I do not know and the call had come in from some other very random number).

At this point I started trying to call United Airlines using the numbers on the claim envelope for my bags. (noting that their tickets as printed from my computer do not have any phone numbers on them at all, so if you need to call United and only have your e-tickets you are just out of luck).

I spent almost an hour on the phone with United on that bus. Trying to determine when (and if) my bags would arrive in Madison, and what (and if) I could do to get my money back.

Upon arriving in Madison, checking in to my hotel, getting dinner etc I then resumed calling United.

Among the problems I found with their “customer service”

  1. Each type of issue MUST be dealt with via a different phone number. One for baggage, one for tickets, one for refunds.
  2. Each person on the phone cannot then transfer you to another one of their numbers directly – they can only give you the number
  3. Though they are well scripted and speak clear English, it is clear also that all the customer service folks are in India (probably) and cannot, for example, connect you directly with the actual people on the ground in O’Hare or Madison.
  4. United apparently makes it very hard to get them to deliver your bags to your hotel in cases such as mine. After spending hours on the phone with them, and having repeated assurances that “I’m sending a message to the agents in Madison and O’hare about your bags” only some of those messages seem to have made it through.
  5. I was, in fact, told I might (they could not say one way or the other) be charged for the delivery of my bags – however they could not even tell me what, if any, such charges might be (I’ve since learned from the doorman at my hotel that the charge is, he thinks, $100!)
  6. Though the agents on the phone told me repeatedly that to deal with my refund I would have to “go to the airport” when, in fact, I was at the airport (in Madison) I was told, again repeatedly, “No you have to call this number, and then given a small scrap of paper with the address and phone number for refunds – and the generic united.com URL)
  7. At no time did anyone from United EVER offer to do anything for me. No offer of compensation for my additional costs to get to my final destination, no offer of a hotel room in Chicago had I needed one due to being rescheduled on a flight the next day (and note this was at a city I was connecting through, they had no way to know that I probably could have stayed with my parents had I really needed to). Nor any compensation for the hotel room I had reserved in Madison (or even worse the potential problems had I missed checking in and lost my reservation for the whole weekend!)
  8. Not to mention anything for my time and the many hours delay (and nearly day+ delay) in getting to Madison. I was traveling (mostly) for personal reasons, however I had planned on spending most of this morning on work – not on getting my bag from the airport or phone calls with United. Likewise I had planned on attending some events in Madison last night (which I mostly did manage, though only barely, to make) and I had planned on then spending much of the evening working – now I’ll have to do that work at other points in the weekend – diminishing my enjoyment of the convention.

So needless to say, I am annoyed with United.

And I think this gives a number of lessons for what not to do around customer service.

First – have ONE number for customer service, not more than three. Make sure that ALL agents at that number can, at a minimum, direct any call to any other agent so that in one single call ALL of the issues of a customer can be dealt with.

Second – delays in getting to an agent, especially by a time-sensitive business such as an Airline – of nearly 15+ minutes are just unacceptable (more than 5 rings really is unacceptable). And though the automated systems are, at times, useful, hiding the “agents” options is just annoying (and “operator” or selecting 0 should get you there as well)

Third – Never ever ever have the automated system finally get you to a human only to have that human before you can get a word in edgewise transfer you BACK TO THAT SAME AUTOMATED SYSTEM! I’m serious, that happened to me when trying to get to a human to understand where my bag, in fact, was.

Fourth – Do NOT ask customers for any code which is NOT LABELED AS THAT CODE on the documents in front of the passenger. For example “baggage claim code” when the bar code label has no sublabels and lots of different numbers printed on it. Further when what apparently is the number, does not in fact work as the computer asks).

Fifth – instead of waiting for a passenger to ask for things they do not even know might get covered (like say the costs I nearly incurred to get toiletries this morning so I could shave, moisturize etc) MAKE AN IMMEDIATE OFFER to all of your customers whom you have just failed. And don’t wait to speak with each person individually, make it publicly and use contact information to reach out proactively to each person (United did, for example, have my email and phone numbers – but beyond one phone call have not used either to contact me further – an apology via email would be appreciated for example).

Sixth – threatening your customers is not a good tactic. I was threatened with the Chicago Police. Later, I was threatened with the risk of having the rest of my travel canceled if I did not proactively call and contact United (since I was not going to fly on United to Madison my return flight home from Chicago in a few days had the risk of being automatically canceled. I have, at this point, been told it would not be canceled – but until I am back home safely in San Francisco I will not rest easily.

And my pain though bad could have been less than that of a friend of mine with nearly the same problems (he was supposed to be on the next flight at 4:30 which was also, it turns out, canceled just minutes before board – like me they did not tell him at just after 2 that it would be canceled – so instead of getting on the same bus I took or preparing to take the 4:30pm bus he went and got lunch). In his case, he had a bit more time in O’Hare then I and tried to get his bags which had been checked. They refused to get them claiming not to have enough people – even when he told them that the contained his blood pressure medicine and other supplies – that, apparently was not sufficient cause or emergency for them to get a passenger their own bags when they need to use alternative transportation due to the airline’s cancellation of flights (and in his case he was told that not just every other flight yesterday but all of the flights today were already completely full so he might not be able to get to Madison via United before Saturday. However in his case the flight he was on was codeshared with US Airways so his phone customer service problems included the problem of one airline not acknowledging that his canceled flight had, in fact, been canceled – and then the only refund they have offered him is not cash back but a credit on a future US Airways flight (which after this experience he does not really want to use in any case).

So in rather long form that is where things stand now. I have, finally, managed to get my bags. So far I have wasted a few hours on the phone with United, had repeated promises from them broken (they promised to deliver my bags to my hotel, they promised to get them here on various flights which each were either in turn canceled or left without my bags). Directly I have spent over $40 in other costs (bus fare, food on the bus ride, etc). I also spent 2 more hours on that bus than I had planned in my travels (the flight was less than a hour), and then spent another 30+ minutes today going to and from the airport. Last night instead of catching up with old friends, I spent hours on the phone. Today instead of 4-5 productive hours of work, I spent most of the day worrying about getting my bags – and spent the morning unshaven and looking and feeling like a slob (though I was lucky that I had, in fact, packed a change of clothes, had I not, I would have had to early this morning find someplace in Madison to buy a shirt and clean underwear)

I am tempted to send United a bill for my time & expenses. At my regular day rate they would get a bill for much more than I spent on my tickets to Madison (and those cost me more than $500). A lot more than that in fact.

I think if all companies such as United were liable for their customers lost time & expenses when the company was at fault many more companies would take a much more proactive approach to customer service (and for anyone who does not have an established day or hourly rate some minimum yet high rate to be used – or perhaps a minimum liability of at least what the customer spent with the company). I could see setting a cap here as well – perhaps not to exceed 5x what a customer has spent.

I do not think I will take United to court, but nor am I done with them. I will still have to fly home with them in a few days. And I will have to spend likely another hour on the phone with them to figure out how to get a refund from them for my flight they canceled (as well as reimbursement for my costs – at least the $25 bus fare).

Annoying.

Do not use United Airlines (or US Air) if you can at all avoid it. And I’d even suggest looking at non-air options whenever possible.

UPDATE May 31st 2007 – the return

So I did get back to San Francisco, but not without some hiccups along the way. I was unable to check-in online OR at the computer check-in terminals at the gate – apparently my ticket was flagged as “itinerary  changed” (online it showed my reservation but said “no electronic ticket found, go back to where you purchased the ticket and then try united.com again…”).

At the gate the agent, without any explanation or discussion of my options issued me a refund of about $84 for the canceled flight (this on a total ticket which was about $500 for the whole round trip). Unclear where this number comes from, when I had priced one-way tickets from Chicago to Madison earlier they were showing up as over $200. But as it is higher than the cost of the bus I spent, I’m not fuming – just puzzled and still annoyed at United and very disappointed.

Posted in customer service, personal, reviews | 10 Comments »

Mail delays

Posted by shannonclark on May 22, 2007

While friends of mine recommend cutting back on email to once a day (or even once a week) – see Tim Ferriss’s bestselling The 4 hour Work Week – I do not fully ascribe to this suggestion. For one, I have spent many of the past few years training by behavior my friends, family and clients that email is the fastest and most reliable way to reach me – usually better even than calling me (and certainly better than calling my home number which I don’t even know – never giving it out).

So for the past few days I have been a state of semi-withdrawal For some reason, still unknown to me, my mail is being delayed at my mail server for nearly 24hrs. It is a shared server run by a friend, whom I have asked to look into what might be the problem, the server is up, seemingly functional, but my mail is delayed considerably.

Reading my mail at the moment is a bit like a time warp, I’m reading conversations, suggestions, invitations which were made yesterday, often now no longer relevant or important.

So, if you have tried to contact me recently (via my JigZaw.com email) please use one of the following alternative means to reach me (I hope I’ll eventually get your email as my mail catches up).

1. Call me at 1.800.454.4929. If I don’t answer, please leave a voicemail with who you are and how to get back to you.

2. Email me at shannon DOT clark AT gmail DOT com  (and please mention your previous email so I watch out for it)

3. Send me a Twitter dm. My id there is rycaut.

And I hope this will all be resolved in a few days. I’ll be on a mini-vacation to the Midwest for the next week so responses would have been delayed in any case.

Posted in internet, personal, working | Leave a Comment »

Why I am a Doctor Who fan

Posted by shannonclark on May 21, 2007

This is a bit personal.

In geek circles (here in the US) there are two main camps – Star Trek fans and Star Wars fans.

However there is a, much smaller, camp which I am in, Doctor Who fans. With the return of the series to television (and dvds) there are many new fans of Doctor Who, especially in the UK, though also here in the US due to broadcasts of the new series by the SCIFI channel and BBC America.

If you wonder why I am a fan, however, take a look at this incredibly complete guide to everything Doctor Who 

Note in particular the links to the complete books (hundreds) and likewise the hundreds of episodes, comics, audio plays and more that make up the full universe of Doctor Who. I’ve personally seen almost every episode (that is still extant) and heard many (though not all) of the audio plays. I’ve read a bunch of the books – but by no means all (though my collection is in the hundred+ range).

Yes, the Star Wars universe has a bunch of books to go along with the 6 movies (and some animated series) plus a mmog. And sure, Star Trek has multiple series, a bunch of movies, and a large number of books, games etc.

But to my mind, Doctor Who is the more interesting series.

For one, it is a series that combines dozens of genres into one – historicals, space operas, somewhat present set science fiction tales. Sweeping stories arcs as well as tightly written individual stories. Lots of humor (heck, Douglas Adams wrote for the series) but plenty of serious stories as well.

And in the recent incarnation Doctor Who is also showing itself to be a very modern series. The companion at the moment is a black female (and her character is a doctor and very smart and capable). Throughout the current run of the series sexuality is also addressed in a much more modern and forthright manner than in either Star Wars or Star Trek (which pretty much ignore any possibilities other than a man with a woman). The Doctor has even had an onscreen man-to-man kiss (well in the doctor’s case “male Galafrayan”) and other characters have very clearly acknowledged other than male to female relationships (in one recent case asking “so do you have a girlfriend? a boyfriend?” of a man she has just met).

It bears noting that in the UK, Doctor Who is a prime-time, aimed at families and especially children show.

And the current spin-off from Doctor Who, Torchwood, which is aimed more directly at an adult audience primarily, deals with sexuality in an even more complex manner (every main character in the series over the course of the first season had some form of same sex encounter, and the main character Jack appears to be in a relationship with another of the male characters – though clearly also open to other relationships – and one episode was specifically about a past relationship the character had with the person whose name he has taken on).

Yes, such things may have happened in some fan fiction set in the other series, but for Doctor Who in the current run this is happening in the “official” canon.

And as a straight, male fan, I’m really happy to see it. I like that my favorite (old) show has returned, with better effects, and is not just repeating the past but looking to the present and the future. Incorporating great writing and taking on modern issues and a view of the future that feels current, not dated (as I find very much the case for Star Trek – and I think of Star Wars as more a fantasy of the past than science fiction of the future).

But what I also really appreciate about Doctor Who is that the underlying message, repeated many times, of the series is to never give up – to always keep trying. To engage with the world, to ask questions, to think of alternatives – even when given seemingly only one choice.  And the Doctor Who universe is rarely black & white. There are consequences to actions. Main characters have died – not just ones in a given episode, but long running companions (Adric in the old series).

And in the new series clearly the people running it are fans. They have grown up with the series, are seeped in the lore and the past – in the large and growing universe of Doctor Who. The limitless possibilities of the format tied back together and echoed via reoccurring threads. This linear but not nature of Doctor Who is also one of my pleasures with it as a fan. The Doctor Who universe is growing not just in a single direction but in many, all at the same time. The novels and audio plays (and comics which I’m less familiar with) are exploring the activities of past doctors (played in the audio plays by the actors who played them on TV) while the new series is charting new territories on TV each week.

This is clearly tricky to pull off (and yes, there are debates amongst fans as to what is/is not cannon) but for the most part it is being pulled off – and amazingly well.

Posted in geeks, personal, reviews | 4 Comments »

Joost enough?

Posted by shannonclark on May 18, 2007

As I have mentioned in the past, when I moved to the Bay Area in 2006 from Chicago I left behind in Chicago my TV. And since being here, I have not yet replaced it. My intention in not buying a TV was in part to save money (both the cost of the TV and subscription to some source of channels) and in part to save time, time I expected I would spend catching up on the many books I had and wanted to ready.

For the most part this has mostly worked. I have not spent the ~$1000 (or so) for a decent HDTV (and easily much more), nor do I have a monthly bill of $40-60+ from a cable company. I do have a very high monthly phone bill for my DSL – but that is also a very direct business expense.

In the past year I have read about 70 books (yes, at least one a week, often more) and some 100 magazines, not to mention 1000’s of pages of writing online. And though I read quickly, I am buying books faster than I read them (yes, a slightly bad habit of mine). However, I am probably still net ahead – were I subscribed to cable I’d still be buying many of the same books (about a quarter or more of which are books by friends of mine plus books by authors I’ve met).

But this post is not about my book buying habit (that will be the subject of a later post when I finish adding my collection to LibraryThing) rather it is a post about Joost.

A few months ago I was sent a Joost invite. I downloaded it, tried it out on my large screen iMac (24″), generally enjoyed it, but then found I had not run it in months. A few days ago I updated my installation of Joost to the latest version.

As I write this blog post, I am watching Joost, streaming quickly and smoothly, in a window to the left of my screen. I am listening to some of my favorite music on the Warner Channel. Earlier I listened to some great (and then some not-so-great dance songs on another channel, and before that got a bit of a poker fix via the poker channel). I see that another channel has Lexx, one of my favorite sci-fi series and I’m looking forward to catching up/seeing if there are any episodes I haven’t seen. I’m also curious whether or not Joost will be showing censored versions of Lexx, I seem to recall that there were some episodes which were more revealing when shown outside of the US.

But for the most part my entertainment viewing on my iMac have been from other sources – so for the moment at least Joost is not enough (for me). I still use other means – dvd’s I buy, iTunes, and other sources (the later generally for stuff that is unavailable). I subscribe to some video podcasts – but actually rarely view them – generally watching video podcasts, when I do, by going directly to the site (such as Ask a Ninja).

Posted in digital bedouin, futureculture, geeks, internet, personal, reading | 3 Comments »

Stop complaining about capitalism and make it your bitch

Posted by shannonclark on May 14, 2007

Sometimes the strangest searches lead to this blog.

I did not write the quote in the subject, but a few years ago I linked to the still highly relevant article “Queer Eye for the Green Guy” which coined this phrase.

Reminded of it tonight, I still agree with the comments I’ve read elsewhere online which suggest this could make a great bumper sticker (or t-shirt, though as the article suggests, perhaps one you wear underneath a more formal shirt).

I am a capitalist. But I am also, in many respects, a “bright” and to an extent a “green”. I am not, however, all that left leaning politically – yes on many social issues, but I’m probably too anti-union, pro-free trade, pro-global integration (though many of my personal policy suggestions would probably not sit all that well with many on the “right” either. I usually call myself a “radical centrist” – and no, that’s not a contradiction.

In my personal life I am relatively “good” from an ecological footprint. I do not own a car, my use of electricity and gas for heating is minimal (though I likely live in too many sq. ft. for a single person by many ecological measures). On the otherhand, I do a fair amount of bi-coastal travel with misc. other trips to parts of the US – about one trip a month, which probably is a bit worse for the environment than if I owned a car and did not fly (but it may be pretty close – I do generally fly dense flights on fairly modern planes which helps a little bit).

I buy a lot of organic and local products, though I do buy some furniture and clothing new, much of what I own is secondhand (though I do own a lot of books). I have recycled my old computers (with an organization in Chicago which refurbishes them for reuse whenever possible) but I do now own many computers.

And though I love vegetables, I’m certainly an omnivore though living in the bay area I can much of the time adhere to a diet that Slow Food would likely approve of (heck, here in San Francisco even many of the taquerias serve organic meats from Niman Ranch, along with it seems most of the independent burger joints!). Whenever possible I shop at local farmer’s markets.

But by all means I encourage you, even if to the left, right, up or down of me politically to “stop complaining about capitalism and make it your bitch” – sell. Add value. Make, gasp, a profit. Reinvest it. Do it again. Expand into other regions of the world. Show others how they too could make money AND be green AND be improving the lot of many.

Profit is not a scary thing – it is, fundamentally an opportunity at a point in time. i.e.  to make a profit, you have invested energy and resources and be allocated by others more than what you invested at that point in time – i.e. something you have done gave a number of others value and now you have an opportunity to pass that along, perhaps to repeat it (when possible) perhaps to explore other options (and perhaps to do both).

Value is embedded in networks. At a point in time when we have “made a profit” what that means is that by the way we were tracking value, what we invested was less than what we have generated.

But you have to always look at this cautiously. Often traditional accounting does not track lots of factors – for example if most people working on something are not being paid – then they are surviving (feeding, sheltering clothing themselves) based on resources they obtain somewhere else (other jobs, savings, gifts from friends or family). Yes, technically an organization might create value from their efforts during this time and transform that to a “profit” in some manner (from retail sales to services) but unless everyone involved will always be willing to get their personal resources in other ways then the system as a whole would show that that specific entity is not “really” showing a profit.

However it is indeed very possible to generate a profit which does, in fact, include the costs of the people involved in that process.

From an ecological standpoint here is where things can get really interesting.

Some businesses are built on top of something seemingly scarce (physical resources for example – a mining company). They usually try to determine what the cost of getting their good(s) are at a point in time – and likewise what the price of that good is which they can obtain. i.e. the oft cited “it costs $40 to extract a barrel of oil from a given field so until the price of oil is higher than that…” However arriving at these costs (and the prices) is actually very complex (and at various time horizons hard to measure.

– i.e. long term costs such as environmental cleanups, long term commitments to employees such as pensions & health care, replacement costs/present value of equipment, political costs such as fees, taxes etc which can and will change as political parties change in the relevant countries etc.

And whether a “profit” is being shown at point in time relies on how you account for things – but fundamentally what it is also showing is that lots of other parties (people, governments, corporations etc) may (or may not) be willing to part with resources for the resource being exploited (say Gold or Oil).

But a company who does that should look at what role they play in these systems. I, for one, am very encouraged by the shift from “Oil Companies” to “Energy Companies” it allows, at least for the consideration, of other ways to meet demands for energy – with Oil being just one (albeit a major one) option. (Though it should also be noted that many of these companies also generate vast amount of resources from non-energy uses of Oil – plastics & lubricants for example being just two major ones.

An activist of any sort – “bright”, “green”, social etc should think about how they might look at the systems around them and at how alternatives which are aligned philosophically with their beliefs might serve valued roles in those systems – while likely also helping reinvent and reshape those systems.

i.e. the “slow food” movement has helped in a very real way drive the larger organic movement which in turn has repercussions  in many areas. Changing demand for pesticides and fertalizers, greater realization of the costs of shipment (even resulting in firms such as Walmart looking to source more produce locally), and in a very real way a reshaping of how food is perceived (i.e. “organic and natural” might be better than “bright and shiny” when it comes to apples). Reinforced in this specific case by usually also great taste (and a greater variety of them).

I am not disheartened when I see people making money selling “organic” – when I see what had been small businesses grow to be big ones, or when I see huge businesses (Walmart, Safeway etc) selling organic products and looking at sourcing them locally. I’m encouraged – yes, they may also save money by doing so – and perhaps be able to sell goods at higher prices while also lowering their costs (i.e. make profits).

But aren’t we also benefiting?

Anyway these are complicated topics – but go, make Capitalism your Bitch and explore them!

Posted in economics, Entrepreneurship, networks, personal, politics, San Francisco | 4 Comments »

Outlook 2007 – more bugs and Junk Mail filter failure

Posted by shannonclark on May 14, 2007

Tonight (well technically this morning) I downloaded a bunch of mail to my installation of Outlook 2007, a bit surprised that in doing so I was told it was catching junk mail (since I am pulling down from gmail where there are already pretty good junk/spam mail filters). In the past I have been reasonably impressed with Microsoft Outlook’s Junk Mail filters.

Not so anymore.

In looking at my junk mail folder – which at the time I looked had nearly 4000 messages (not as surprising as it may sound, I get nearly 400-500 emails every day) so this was from not much more than a month or two of mail – at first glance over 90% of the messages in the “Junk Mail” folder for Outlook 2007 were NOT junk mail.

These messages included mail I had sent myself (from my gmail account). Personal messages to me from my mother. A wide range of direct and indirect messages – many from mailing lists for which I have rules set up.

But 90% of the messages not actually being Junk Mail is totally and completely unacceptable.

Further, there is not way, at least not that I can determine, to once you have marked one instance of a message (say to a mailing list) as not being junk mail to automatically go through the junk mail folder and correct the processing of all of the messages of that type (indeed if you select more than one message from the junk mail folder you no longer have the option of marking them as not junk). Yes, when you mark a message as “not junk” you then get asked whether you want to add the sender to your list of “safe senders” and the recipient to your “safe recipients”  list. But doing so does not let you get a chance to do so for all such messages in the folder.

Thus if, like me, you have 4000 messages in the folder there is no way for you to go through the messages and clean them up other than pretty much go through them one message at a time marking the false positives as “not junk” (and dealing in each case with the automatically generated pop-up window asking you to add that sender – even when that sender is already on your safe senders list!)

Unbelievably bad. And this was at the “LOW” setting.

I can only imagine that should I have set the “junk mail” filter any higher, I would have had 10,000+ messages in my junk mail folder.

And woe befall you if you have set your junk mail to be automatically deleted!

No wonder email is growing less reliable – the newest version of Outlook  seems to feel that people should not get their messages at all.

And a performance set of issues.

I gave up on setting the rules (I’m  also going to just turn off junk mail filters) and decided to just move all the messages to my inbox.

Then I tried to open up my inbox.

And I waited. And waited. And waited. Apparently about 8000 messages is too many for Outlook to handle gracefully, it has to calculate all types of things (I guess) and so I waited to open up my own inbox for a number of minutes.

My experience with Outlook 2007 so far has not be a positive one. Indeed I am so unimpressed I find myself rarely trying to use it, though I would like it to be workable. Indeed I hoped it would be workable.

I fear it is not.

Posted in geeks, microsoft, working | 36 Comments »

$4.09 gasoline and other walking tales

Posted by shannonclark on May 14, 2007

So a few evenings ago on my way to my frequent late night working cafe, Ritual Roasters, I walked past a Chevron station. A station without the huge dominating signs, just a lone small sign on the ground showing their prices. I took a photo, the premium gasoline is priced at $4.099/gallon here in San Francisco as of May 11th 2007.

I do not own a car having sold my last car in 2004 after only driving it for just over 13,000 miles in the 4 years I had owned it. When I need a car (very rarely these days) I do use CityCarShare to get an occasional car, though I may shift over to ZipCar as they seem to have more cars and might work better for my primary needs (for a car alternative to the train to get down the Penisula for meetings & events). In any case, I haven’t paid personally for gas in many many months.

On the other hand, this higher price, combined with the recent highway collapse due to fire in the East Bay, seems to have had some impact on the number of cars in San Francisco – at least some of the time it appears that there are more parking spaces available. Now whether $4+ gas will inspire greater public transit ridership remains to be seen, I hope that it does to a significent enough level that they start to rebuild resources.

But there are still so many basic steps which the Muni and other public transit agencies in the bay area need to do. Starting with the most basic – there are about 100 too many such agencies (perhaps I’m exagerating a bit but there are nearly a dozen different public transit agencies with service just into or within San Francisco, not to mention countless other smaller agencies in surrounding towns and counties.

But a few other major, yet simple, steps which should (I think) be taken.

1. Public transit has a public mission. As part of this, buses and trains (in particular the BART across the bay) should continue service every evening until at least 1 hour after the bars and nightclubs close. If on the weekend this implies possibly 24hr service, so be it. The public interest in having easy ways for people who have been drinking to get home is very high. Not to mention that by making it easier to get out of the city you encourage more people (including lots of college students) to spend literally spend money as well as time in the city. When I lived in Berkelely I did not stay out late in the city as if I missed the last Bart (at about 12:20pm) I would have been stuck taking a very slow, hard to find where to catch bus which ran only a few times each hour.

2. Service in the late nights should be much more frequent and easy to use. Especially between 10pm and 2-3am along any routes with significant nightlife. At present buses (and trains) seem to essentially stop just before midnight not to resume until just before 1am in most cases. And anytime after 11pm using buses or trains to get around the city is dicey at best – often taking 4-5x as long as the same travels would take during more “regular” hours. Again this is a public interest matter – make it easier for people to reach nightlife without driving and you encourage more late night business (i.e. more spending on local bars, restaurants, movie theaters, and nightclubs).

3. Reward bus drivers who make it EASIER for people to use public transit. A few nights ago a bus driver gunned his bus and raced past the stop I was just about to reach. The next bus would not be stopping for nearly 40 minutes (I walked a while then waited, arriving home some 40 minutes later than I had hoped). Bus drivers have a really hard job – and more often than not a really thankless one but seemingly they have incentives not to make it easier for people to use their services.

4. MAKE IT EASIER TO SPEND MONEY. The Muni does not sell “fast passes” in many places at all throughout the city. In fact last month I went to nearly a dozen places which were all sold out of the fast passes – and dozens of other stores which did not even sell them. They do not sell them from any of the many machines which otherwise vend passes (well the muni does not have machines – the BART does – yet another example of why too many agencies is beyond silly but also counterproductive).

Fast passes should be hard not to buy – they should be sold at every station, possibly by every bus driver, residents should easily sign up and get fast passes in the mail every month. Every little corner market should be equipped to sell them (and yes, they should make some money on selling them).

Further the various transit agencies should make it easier to do routine, regular tasks which anyone using the public transit might want to do. For example, getting to either of the major San Francisco area airports (and why San Jose’s airport is nearly unreachable via public transit at least from San Francisco is a reasonable question). As it stands today, SFO is relatively easily reached – however the BART to there is technically “outside” of San Francisco, so anyone with a Fast Pass (MUNI) cannot use it to get to the airport, instead you have to purchase a separate fare – for about $5.00 each way. To get to Oakland you have to also pay a separate fare, but then even worse you have to pay a yet additional fare for the ‘air bart” and endure a 20 minute bus ride from the BART station to the airport (quite why it is so long is not at all clear – but it is about 15 minutes too long – really the train should get you no more than 5-10 minutes from the gates in a more ideal world).

Furthermore if you should need to get to the airport early in the morning, or if you arrive late at night, there are NO public transit options left to you. Personally I think that like not closing until an hour or so after the last bars close, neither should the public transit routes from the airports stop until after the last plane of the night has landed (and the passengers have cleared customs and gotten their checked luggage). And there should be public transit options which get anyone in the bay area to either airport in time for even 6 AM flights. i.e. transit options which get you to the airport by 5AM or even earlier (so you have time to get from the train to the departure gates, clear the security lines, and get to your gates with ease).

Posted in digital bedouin, economics, personal, San Francisco | 1 Comment »

Following me across the net – comments, guest blogs and more

Posted by shannonclark on May 11, 2007

Besides writing here at Searching for the Moon, which is my personal blog where I discuss a range of things – from my theories of economics to photographs I have taken (and if you search through the archives of the past nearly 5 years much much more) I am also active in many other spaces online.

Most recently a comment of mine on a TechCrunch article led to being asked to write a guest blog post at CenterNetworks – tittled “Twittering and it won’t stop”. From that same comment I have also received a lot of traffic (well relative to my normal levels) and some other personal emails.

I have a habit of leaving comments which, perhaps, could/should be blog posts in their own right. Someday someone will figure out a seamless and easy way for me to aggregate all my comments left anywhere, until then I have to rely on search engines, my own memory, and the links I save.

One notable comment I have left recently is at the ConversationHub which is the recently launched blog for Supernova – with guest posts by a bunch of really smart people who are all participating in Supernova this year. I am looking forward to my own participation at Supernova and at the planned open space the day before Supernova which many friends of mine are organizing and helping to facilitate.

A few other notable ways to pay attention to what I am doing and writing (and often what I plan doing).

I use Google Reader as my primary news reader.  You can follow the items I share at my Shared Items page (and/or subscribe to the feed which is generated). I read an eclectic mix of blogs (nearly 100) and try to only share the very best and most interesting posts.

Since SXSW my use of Twitter has been one of the most impactful new pieces of technology I have adopted. You can add me on twitter by going to my personal twitter page at http://www.twitter.com/rycaut.

Though I do not upload them as often as I might like, I do try to upload the best and most interesting (I think) of my photographs to Flickr. You can take a look – and add comments or tags at http://www.flickr.com/photos/shannonclark/.

For most events, at least in the Bay Area, which I plan on attending I generally mark them on Upcoming (if they are public). You can see what I am going to (at least the public events) at my upcoming profile page.

And finally I maintain a public calendar called Events for Geeks on Google. This free, public resource is one which I would love to have help maintaining. The goal is to list all the public events (so not private, invite only/off the record) which might matter to geeks – either in planning other events or in thinking about where to travel to/what to attend. So in addition to the “obvious” conferences, I am also seeking to list factors such as when Burning Man is scheduled, major music festivals, when some schools are on break (and/or have finals – hard to get either students or professors to an event around then) etc.

You can add Events for Geeks to your Google Calendar or other calendar which can read a public web calendar (newest version of Outlook should be able to for example).

The iCal URI for Events For Geeks is ugly but as follows: http://www.google.com/calendar/ical/480fie86ihvbv8tm0mc4pfr50k%40group.calendar.google.com/public/basic.ics

Follow that link to download the .ics file, or more usefully copy that link into Google Calendar to “add a public calendar” or into another application (such as Apple’s iCal or Microsoft’s Outlook 2007) which is capable of subscribing to public iCalendar feed.

(I was for a while one of the editors of the iCalendar standard so it is appropriate, I guess, that I maintain a calendar which has a public feed).

And as I mentioned, if you would like to help edit and maintain this public resource, please drop me a line. The only requirements are that you:

1. do not list private events

2. always include a source URL and ideally a rich description including price (if any/known)

3. mostly list all day events (otherwise timezones become a complicated factor)

So those are a few other ways, other than reading this blog or subscribing to the feed here, which you can follow my activities on and offline. I may start using a public bookmarking tool again, I haven’t much in the past 6+ months, if so I’ll post that url when I have it.

Posted in digital bedouin, geeks, internet, personal, web2.0, working | 1 Comment »

The value of used – a networked economics perspective

Posted by shannonclark on May 8, 2007

Tonight I will be presenting at bayCHI a presentation titled “A MeshWalk down the street – communications, connections and networked economics”.  Please join me there to hear my first presentation of my theory of networked economics, as well as a discussion about the MeshWalk format of events I run.

This post is an example of what networked economics offers as an analytical approach. I welcome comments & discussions, either here via comments, via personal emails, or via discussions in your own blogs (please link back here so I can find them).

The value of used

ArsTechnica recently published a discussion about “pawn shop” laws springing up across the country focusing on regulating the sale of used CDs. These laws have the effect of making selling used CDs to store a very intrusive process, requiring that the seller present multiple forms of id, that the store have expensive bonds, even regulating what forms of payment can be used (only store credit in some states) and how long a store has to wait before selling the CD’s (30 days in some states). Apparently these laws are frequently at the bequest of the Record Industry which believes that because they do not get a cut of used cd sales, they should try to lobby to regulate out of existence such sales.

I would like to offer a counter argument, that a robust used market is a sign of a healthy industry, one which is renewing itself and can prosper. That used markets serve a vital role in the underly ecosystem of the economy.

A related point is that as a society we benefit from vibrant used markets as they keep items which would otherwise become part of our ever growing landfills in useful circulation. Stores selling “used” items provide multiple additional transactions around a given object, enabling items unwanted by the original owners to find new homes and uses.

Let’s look at a variety of “used” markets to start to see what I am arguing.

  • Books
  • Furniture
  • Watches
  • Art
  • Steel & Gold
  • Homes
  • Employment (I’ll explain)

And there are hundreds of others. Most of the economy, in fact, is built on complex webs of interactions, many of which involve the reuse of items and their resale, repackaging or repurposing. Very few parts of the economy are simple paths where all transactions are buyers buying new objects from sellers selling only brand new items. A few parts of the economy – foods (though many food purchases become the ingredients for later transactions – i.e. a restaurant), a few commodities such as gasoline (though some motor oils for example can be partially reused).

Taking my list in order.

Books – when I first learned to read I got most of my books from the library, but as I exhausted the types of books I enjoyed at my local library my next “step” in my love of books was local used bookstores. Like many avid readers a large portion of my book collection (over 1500 books and growing every week) has been purchased at used bookstores over the years. Hundreds of thousands of different new books are printed each year around the globe (in all languages the numbers may be in the millions). Most of these books do not remain in print for more than a few years. Used bookstores provide access to these countless books.

But they serve more roles. Around college campuses used textbooks offer a hedge on the growing cost of textbooks, students who need to save money can purchase used books instead of new (and though primary textbooks in fields do change every few years – both as the field advances and as a response to used textbook sales, many of the related books used in college classes – such as various novels do not change from year to year, the works of Shakespeare for example.). Students who buy new books and decide after the class they have no further need of the books can resell them and recover a portion of their costs.

Vibrant used book sales do more than just offer access to books which are out of print. They also allow for items which were originally priced at a relatively fixed price (the “suggested retail price”) to be sold at the prices individuals are willing to pay. In many cases these are much lower than the original price – but not always. “Rare” books sell for vast multiples of the original price of books (and as a collector, I have many books I’ve gladly paid a premium to own – even one book published in the 1680’s for which I paid 4 figures).

But beyond a discussion about price – used bookstores cultivate readers. They help individuals find more books to read, buy more of them (than if just buying new), and by visceral experience see that many others read and love books (as a kid I recall hours spent poring over the aisles of great local used bookstores, exploring what was available to me, I then spent many summers sorting books for huge used book sales to support the local library). A used book can also be a talisman, a connection across the years from reader to reader. One of my most treasured books is an old and battered copy of Emanuel Lasker’s Manual of Chess which I purchased from a used bookstore in my hometown at about the age of 13. The copy I bought had been stuffed with newspaper clippings of chess games and puzzles by a previous owner – as I read the truly great book, I also caught glimpses of a lifetime’s love of chess by the previous owner.

Someday, I hope to pass down that book to another child (hopefully my own) and inspire another generation’s love of chess.

And I have since bought many copies of the Manual of Chess, both used and occasionally new (though it was first published in the 1920’s, it has occasionally be republished) to give as gifts and to use as a reading copy for myself.

Furniture – while IKEA and similar “flat pack” furniture may be mostly almost disposable furniture, rarely lasting more than a few moves before being broken, most furniture has historically been designed to be long lasting. Collectors still treasure furniture from many centuries ago. More commonly most people’s first (and even second and third) apartments will be furnished with a variety of used furniture – gifts from friends, purchases from Salvation Army stores, and a handful of new items (generally mattresses). This market for used furniture – both the high end collectibles and the low end resale shops – does not mean that furniture makers have gone out of business (indeed there are 1000’s of them still working across the globe). Homes have a relatively fixed set of furniture needs (though tv/entertainment stands and desks have had to evolve as our devices have changed size and screens have grown larger) by being able to meet these with a variety of used and new options, individuals can pick and choose where to invest their money (and time in finding that “perfect” couch).

Watches – modern, inexpensive watches can and do tell nearly perfect time for often <$10. (Woot.com just yesterday sold two watches for $20 which synch themselves to atomic clocks in the US to tell perfect time, losing only 1 second in a million years). However watches new and old are sold for vastly more than $10. Sold not as functional items purely but as decorative status symbols. Watch collecting has been a passionate hobby for many for centuries. Though fewer people today are trained watchmakers, a friend of mine just a few years ago bought and sold sufficient used watches and watch parts to raise the downpayment on his condo.

Art – The art “market” is dominated almost entirely by the used art market. A few “major” artists command significant prices for their new pieces in their own lifetimes. But often these prices and their ability to command them is set by the prices others have been willing to pay for their older pieces on the “used” market. Art is also a very complex market. Artists find creative ways to share their art with people – selling limited edition prints, licensing art images in a variety of ways, selling works to museums who them exhibit them (and charge for access). But without the used marketplace for art as a culture we would be limited only that which a handful of living artists are creating. We would all be the poorer for it (poorer culturally but also economically).

Steel & Gold –  Most steel used today is not newly created from raw materials. Rather, most steel is now recycled from previous uses of steel. Melted down and remilled. Without a used market in steel we would be exhausting our world – and as buildings and cars are no longer usable we would have to leave them cluttering our cities and planet. My sister is a jeweler. She buys gold to use to make her jewelery, for the most part, however she is not buying newly mined gold (though certainly there is a lot of that) rather she is more likely to buy recycled gold, melted down from old jewelery or from gold dust and leavings from jewelers making other items.

And now for two of the big ones, then my networked economics discussion 

Homes – Yes, many people across the country buy new homes, or tear down old ones and build new ones. But most homes bought and sold in the US (and indeed in most of the world) are used. The business of selling used homes drives a huge portion of the economy of the US. The purchase of these homes are typically financed by mortgages (and 1000’s of companies help sell those mortgages), the mortgages in turn are packaged and sold to investors across the globe. Each month millions of home owners make payments on those mortgages, sending a portion of their earnings off to the financial institutions who put up funds for a used home in exchange for a promise of monthly payments for years to come (usually 30 years). This vast web of financial commitments and relationships ties millions of people and businesses together for decades. Defining the future and thus setting the value of core elements of our economy to a great extent (i.e to a large degree what a dollar is “worth”).

But without a market for used homes we would be in an illogical position. Homes almost always outlast any individual who owns them through changes in that individual’s needs (children, marriage, new job, death) individuals will move. In the US we move relatively a lot. But worldwide as one generation grows older they very often set up their own households, or leave one household to join another (via marriage often). Thus homes will need to be passed on to a new individual (or group) at some point – in most cases many different times. This does not mean that new homes will not be built, or that older homes may be changed even destroyed to make room for new ones, but the world finds a balance – and that balance requires a market in old homes, in “used” homes.

Employment – As a global community we do not buy and sell people, slavery – after much struggles – is mostly ended. However my point here is that we do make major markets in “used” people – we just called “used” in this case “experience”. Few people today start one job and never change what they do in their lifetime. Even historically for those people who did stay with one firm or organization for an entire career would change roles over time at that firm – usually gaining responsibility. These “used” markets do not mean that people are not entering the marketplace “fresh” from college or other training, however without the majority of opportunities being for “used” people we would not have an economy.

Okay so this last point is a bit of a stretch – but what then is the “networked economics” perspective on all of this – on the value of “used” to the economy and to specific markets, such as CDs?

Vibrant used markets create the overall market for the class of goods or services. Without used markets then the market is defined as a single path – from raw goods to finished product to purchasers to some final end (i.e. trash heap). The network of this market is thus very limited – only so many suppliers of raw goods supplying a small (typically) set of finished product creators who in turn offer a limited choice to buyers. The buyers then having only one option when their use of the product comes to an end – trashing it. So their participation in the market is limited by how much of their resources they are willing to send off for something which at some point they then plan on destroying without any further gain. They may be able to use the product while they own it in some product manner, but have to factor in the final destruction of the good into their decisions about purchasing it.

In contrast in most markets where there is a vibrant used marketplace the network is much more complex. Raw goods still enter and are transformed by one set of parties. But individual buyers have many more options, they can by “new” or they can buy “used”, likewise when they have an item they can change roles from a buyer to a seller which allows them to enter the network in many more ways than just as conduit to a trash heap. This back and forth, shifting of roles and relationships makes for vastly more interactions across the network. It also makes it easier for the buyers to devote more of their current resources to this market as they are not allocating resources once but can both allocate a portion of new resources (i.e. wages/income from businesses) as well as a portion of the resources from their last times into the market – as sellers not as buyers.

This vibrancy and fluidity of the market also lowers the risks of entry – makes it easier to gain the habit of participation, to go from an occasional participant in the marketplace to an active, frequent one. Buying used books often exposes a reader to a new author, when that author publishes a new book many of those readers buy that book new instead of waiting for it to be available used.

In the case of music specifically used CD sales (and record sales) offer one though no longer the only, way for people to enter the market in easier ways. They also offer opportunities to obtain otherwise unavailable items (since most new stores only stock a very very small portion of the full set of CDs in print, let alone the majority of music which is no longer available new). And for many they offer a hedge, as your tastes change you have an alternative to the trash bin – one which as the ArsTechnica article notes might also generate some cash for students.

But more than the money changing hands the existence of used markets, the capability to interact, the time spent looking at (and learning about collecting) the past means that the market is not limited to just the current output of the industry – but can and will encompass a wider history.

And this participation will make it easier for people to allocate more of their resources to music – and for current artists (and their labels) this could mean (if people like it) buying new albums. It also is a portion off the bigger entertainment industry – gaining interest in a type of music – in no small part by buying the history of that genre will lead to interest in the current path of that genre – including attending concerts.

But killing off the ability to sell what we buy (either physical CD’s or perhaps more complexly digital purchases) means that whatever investments we as buyers make into the marketplace are one-time transfers – removing resources from us and sending them off to a handful of parties. We do not then have the (perhaps) opportunity to enter the market as sellers (unless we create our own original works).

One of my first “careers” was as a dealer in collectible trading cards. I bought, sold, and traded these cards for over a year. Investing about $5000 of my own cash over that year, plus 100’s of hours, and taking out of that year over $40,000, plus 1000’s more in potential value in inventory. While I played a small role in this industry, the company which made the cards I was buying and selling would eventually grow to be sold for nearly $1B and still to this day (over a decade later) sells billions of new cards each year. They prospered even as 1000’s of individuals such as myself invested money and time in their products to create small businesses in the “used” market for those goods. We served to get individual items into the hands of people who valued them, valued our service in doing that greater than what we charged for it. This vibrant marketplace where buyers could also be sellers meant that I was by no means alone in investing my time & resources in participating in the marketplace. Reinvesting some of my proceeds, as well as investing resources garnered elsewhere.

Music is a complex industry – and just as in the book world my personal feelings about buying used items do change when the creators are still alive (assuming I like them and want to support them). However it is exactly because I was able to enter the market – such as books – in a variety of ways, building up my habits over time – and from time to time selling off a portion of my books to reinvest into different ones – that I am now in a position to decide when to buy new books and when to buy used (and I still have the interest in participating in the market at all).

For music, most of what I buy these days are CDs I buy directly from artists – often at a show when I see and enjoy them, occasionally online direct from them. I do also buy some used CDs – usually from artists I have not encountered before and/or who I know off historically. Online I buy some music, again often from sources where I’m comfortable in what will be going to the artists directly (I have bought a few tracks from iTunes but not many).

But part of my lack of participation is the dearth of used sources such as a great store I grew up with, Val’s Halla where I spent many hours as a kid exploring their used CD bins (less time in their vast record collections). Passionate stores such as Val’s are few and far between today -stores that create the market for the industry.

Posted in economics, meshforum, networks | 1 Comment »