Office-Bob Archives: March 2003




Thank you, Apple Computer, for helping me relive my youth

Apple Computer announced a new online music service on April 28th, and while it isn't available outside of the US at this time I have been following the story with interest.
One of the things I discovered while reading online forums discussing the service was that some of the titles they had available for purchase were from a comedy group that I used to listen to many years ago -- the Firesign Theatre. That got me to thinking about how I'd been starting to archive some of my old vinyl records to CD, so I immediately dug through the pile and pulled out my FST records so I could start ripping them.

Ah, memories...

These guys were ahead of the trend regarding reality shows (Beat the Reaper), they paid homage to the old radio dramas (Nick Danger, Third Eye) and late-night movies on TV (High School Madness), they put their own peculiar stamp on commercials (Bearwhiz Beer, Ralph Spoilsport Motors and the Free Mexican Air Force) and public service announcements (is anyone besides me old enough to remember when the INS ran TV ads telling all aliens that they had to register to stay in the country? Well, these guys extended that idea to space aliens!)...hell, how many people could think of taking music from THE DUNWICH HORROR and using it as the theme for a science fiction space opera (MARK TIME)?

If you recognize any of these:

"Good God, it's Magog Brothers Atlantis Carpet Reclaimers -- serving Heater, Hellmouth, and the low desert area..."
"As my daddy said, 'Son, it's in the water...that's why it's yellow'"
"No anchovies? You've got the wrong man; I spell my name -- Danger!"
"Can I get Duluth on it?" "Duluth? Bucko, you can get Tierra del Fuego!"
"We're going to Greece!" "And swim the English Channel?"
"Well, doesn't Louise count?" "Only to ten, Mudhead..."
"Hot dog, groat cakes again! Heavy on the 30-weight, Mom!" *

you might be a Firesign Theatre fan.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have some more vinyl to rip -- right after I send Steve Jobs a thank you note.


*A college dorm-mate once told me about a summer he worked at a logging camp and one day at breakfast, when pancakes were being served, he used this line -- only to have someone else counter with the next part: "Now, now, son, don't eat with your hands -- use your entrenching tool..."

I have the need...the need to read

I went on a 5-day trip recently to attend a science-fiction convention and I realized that I was running dangerously low on reading material, so I decided it was time to make a trip to the local library.
While I'm not completely omnivorous in my tastes in literature, when I go to the library I usually tend to hit the New Releases, Crime Fiction and Science Fiction sections; I don't have any particular goal in mind but I look to see what strikes my fancy. I ended up with 5 books and while I was too busy at the con to spend much time reading, I thought I'd tell you about them:

DEAD AND GONE and EVERYBODY PAYS by Andrew Vachss -- while Vachss' books are not for the faint of heart, his characters manage to draw you in; you know that they're criminals and yet they fight for justice of a sort. The first book features Burke, one of the best anti-heroes I've seen in a long time, while the second is a collection of short stories and a Cross novella. Cross isn't quite as "lovable" as Burke but that's okay, since he roams a different set of streets. While DEAD AND GONE killed off an old friend (I won't say more in case you want to read it for yourself), I understand the reasoning behind it -- and I hope that in a future novel Burke will find a new friend, as he he needs all the friends he can get.

HOSTS by F. Paul Wilson -- I was disappointed in the ending of this Repairman Jack story, as it seemed rather anti-climactic; the ending was a bit Deus et machina and left me feeling flat. I hope this isn't a sign that Wilson is running out of stories to tell, as Repairman Jack is one of my favourite characters. Hey, Dr. Wilson -- I know you were burned by how THE KEEP turned out, but perhaps you could see your way to letting someone film THE TOMB ? With the advances in CG these days, I know they could to justice to the rakoshi...

THE DOOR INTO SUMMER by Robert Heinlein -- one of my old favourites, I wanted something that I'd read before to take the edge of the new stuff (I often read more than one book at time). Good writing, pacing, and a different twist on time travel make this an enjoyable read -- and then, of course, there's Pete!

INCIDENT AT TWENTY-MILE by Trevanian -- I know Trevanian from his spy novels, so I was surprised to see that he'd recently written a Western. A very enjoyable read although he got a bit bogged down in "atmosphere" from time to time; in the afterword he explains that the story is based on fact and gives enough information for the reader to try and verify his statements -- but is it in fact a true historical recording? I don't know and I don't care, and I'm willing to leave it at that.

I've finished those books and am now reading DUNE: THE BUTLERIAN JIHAD by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson; it's over 600 pages long and I'm only at page 98, so I haven't formed an opinion yet. I know some of the DUNE purists hate Brian Herbert for trying to carry on his father's legacy but personally, I like the prequels -- not only because of the backstory that sets up the history of the series, but also because the writing style isn't quite as ponderous as Frank Herbert's was -- the guy was a good writer but damn, was he long-winded!

I picked up some books at the con (one of the perks of being an "attending pro" is that I get invited to publisher's parties where they have free books -- joy!) but I haven't gotten to them yet; perhaps when I do, I'll write about them.

Well, cut out my tongue and call me Oppenheimer...

I have personally witnessed something that I am certain heralds the coming Apocalypse:

My father bought a laptop.

While this may not seem to be a big thing, I have to explain that my parents have always been, shall we say, technically challenged. Some examples:

Their first VCR had cue cards with pictures and arrows pointing to what buttons you needed to press in which order...and they still needed help to figure it out.

Their next VCR came with VCR Plus+...and they still needed help to figure it out.

I can't remember when they finally figured out how to set the clock on the VCR, but I know I showed them how to do it more than once or twice.

When they bought a projection TV and DVD player, I had to help them figure out how to work it; when Mom wrote down the instructions, Step 1 was: Press the "power" button.

Mom had one of those MailStations that are only good for simple e-mail messages (small LCD screen, can't handle attachments, quite simple); I had to show her how to delete messages after reading them.

We won't even discuss the time my Mom bought the wrong video game system and asked me to return it for the right one...on Christmas Eve.

As you can see from the examples I've listed, my parents generally don't have much luck with technology. Now I'm not saying they're stupid -- far from it -- but I used to joke that if my parents ever decided to get a real computer, I was going into the Witness Protection Program in order to avoid the constant tech support calls I imagined I'd get.

When Mom told me this Easter that Dad had bought a laptop I was, to put it mildly, stunned. It wasn't just the fact that he'd bought a computer, you was the fact that:

1) He'd bought it without asking for my help;
2) He'd bought a decent laptop;
3) Most important, he's had it for about a month and hasn't called me for help. NOT ONCE.

Now I'm not going to assume that this means that my parents are suddenly going to be able to discuss computer arcana with me, but when Dad was asking about connecting a mouse to the laptop to avoid using the trackpad and I told him to get a USB mouse that would plug right in, he didn't ask what USB meant -- hell, he didn't even flinch.

Will they stop asking me for assistance? I doubt it; Mom told me that she wanted my help hooking up a DVD player in the RV. On the other hand, Mom still uses AOL.
In any event, this is definitely a major turning point in our relationship...but I'm not sure if I really like it.

I wonder if this is what it feels like for a parent when a child leaves home and goes off on their own?

For want of a nail, the horseshoe was lost...

I just saw something that reminded me of the saying, "Never bring a knife to a gun fight:"

I was watching Robot Wars and in one of the bouts there was a walker-type robot named 11-3. What are the problems with this kind of robot? How do I count the ways...

First, you have limited speed (strike one! ); next, you have a higher elevation which makes it easier for your opponent to attack (strike two! ); finally, they had exposed wiring and hydraulic lines (strike three, yer out! ). Their opponent (named 3 Stegs to Heaven), meanwhile, was fast, low to the ground and had a cutting weapon -- built to get in, get out, and be aggressive as hell.

The walker didn't even get a chance to use their striking weapon; on its first attack, their opponent snuck in and cut one of the hydraulic lines and in the second attack nailed some wiring.

It ended up going to the judges because the attacker lost traction in the hydraulic fluid on the arena floor and couldn't maintain its attack, but the attacking robot still won. In the post-bout interview, I could tell that while Craig Charles (the host) was impressed by the walker, he was gently trying to point out that it wasn't the best type of robot for a fight.

While I don't know the backstory behind 11-3's creation, I have to wonder if the builder was thinking of using it for fighting when he originally built it or if someone saw it and suggested that he enter it in the competition. In any event, I think it shows that you need to evaluate the situation before jumping into the fray -- which is a good idea no matter what battles you face in life.

Repressed Memories

Last night my pager went off around 8 pm; when I called in to retrieve the voicemail, I found an automated message from my service provider telling me to call an 800 number to discuss my account -- which is odd, because it is paid up in full and my next bill isn't due for another week and a half.

I called and got an automated system which confirmed that my account was paid up and not overdue, so I decided to try and locate a Real Live Customer Service Rep to figure out why I was getting messages telling me there was a problem when, in fact, there wasn't.

I called a different number and managed to get in touch with a RLCSR who verified that the account was okay, that the due date for my next bill was accurate, and that he had no idea why I got the page; he theorized that it could have been due to a delay in the online payment being transferred from my bank to them, but further checking showed that it had been received before the cut-off date. He apologized for the problem, and I figured that would be the end of it.

Fast-forward to this afternoon, when my pager went off while I was eating lunch; it was another automated message telling me, once again, to call about my account.

I called and talked to another RLCSR who again was unable to figure out why the messages were being sent and again apologized. She flagged the account to indicate there was a problem with the notifications and said that should take care of it; however, this is starting to remind me of the problem I had with my last pager company and why I switched from them to the company I'm currently with:

A few years ago, I was with a pager company where I was set up for automatic billing to my credit card, but they weren't consistent in when they'd deduct the money; sometimes they'd do it monthly, other times they'd wait a month or two and then take both payments at the same time. It got to the point where I wasn't 100% sure if I was running ahead, behind, or dead even on payments.

Then, the automated messages started coming.

Each month I would get a page telling me that I was behind in my payments; each time I would call the company to complain; each time they would tell me it was a problem that they were having with the billing software and since it was in the system that I was set up for automatic credit card payment, I could just ignore the messages.

Stupid me, I believed them.

Finally, there came the fateful day when I was involved in a car accident and needed to contact my wife; since the battery in my cell phone was running low I left her a message to page me and I would call her back, thereby allowing me to turn off the cell and save the battery. Unknown to me, however, the pager company had so screwed up my account that they had shut off my pager, so all my wife got was a "not in service" message!

I was able to get a ride to the mall there they had their storefront office and went in to complain, where I ran smack into the Wall of Bureaucratic Indifference:

1) Since they were a storefront and not the actual operations center, all they could do was fax in a request to have my pager reactivated, and they were reluctant do to even that;
2) Because the operations center wasn't answering their phone there was no other way to get hold of them to tell them to be looking for the fax (I guess they didn't have any sort of after hours support for their own hardware);
3) While they admitted there had been an error and my service was shut off when it shouldn't have been, I was not eligible for any compensation because their terms of service specifically stated that they were not responsible for "unplanned system outages."
I can understand not accepting liability because lightning has hit your transmitter and you can't send messages but come on -- they shut off my pager due to an error that was 100% theirs; how the hell can someone even try to pass that off an the equivalent of an "Act of God?"

I asked them what they'd have done if I were in a profession where lives were in the balance (doctor, paramedic, Starbucks delivery) and all I got was an indifferent shrug.
People, I do not fight the weather. When it became obvious that I was not going to get any satisfaction I left the store, walked over to Radio Shack, and bought/activated a new pager that was handled through a different company.

The next day, I sent a fax to the pager company to cancel my account. I also advised them that I was disputing their latest charge on my credit card and that I expected from them a detailed billing history for the past year, at which point I would determine what they were actually owed and would pay them by cheque. I then called my credit card company and cancelled the automatic debit and sent them a copy of the fax. The pager company never bothered replying to my fax and they never disputed my reversal of the latest invoice;by my calculations, they lost 2-3 months of payments by not responding.

In the end, it actually turned out for the best; since my pager and cell phone are through the same company I get a discount by having them on the same bill, and the features on my new pager are better than what the old one had -- in other words, I'm now getting more for less than I was paying before.

On the other hand, now that I'm starting to get automated messages regarding my account -- even though it's a different company -- I'm starting to get that déjà vu feeling all over again.
I'm going to be paying very close attention this time to make sure I don't get caught in the same situation as before.