SXSW: interactive 2010

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SXSW Interactive 2010 is over. I spent most of that time in Austin, and came away with some surprising impressions. On the flight down from Seattle, I’d say 80% of the passengers were headed to SXSW. Lots of “design-y” folks, obscure t-shirts, spools, mustaches, tats, hats and obligatory hair. It was a cool crowd, not the hyper let-me-prove-myself-to-you vibe one finds in crowds headed to purely tech events.
Still, SXSW Interactive has a lot of tech to it. Which made it surprising that the tech side of the event seemed like it needed life support, or at least a triple espresso. The website was a bit tangled, the official SXSW iPhone app never fully synced with the data on the site (twitter hashtags never made the jump). And there was the “profile merge” problem: if you set up a my.sxsw account before you actually registered, the photo you uploaded never made it to registration, and your account via the iPhone app never recognized you as an official attendee, meaning no QR scanning, or messaging, or any of that coolness. To fix this took asking specifically for a “merge” wherein your data were munged together. Then manual account setup at 1-2 other external sites to get the QR stuff online. Argh.

Once at the event, there were lines for everything.  Coffee, bathrooms, swag, entry into talks, drinks, dinner, clubs, music. Granted, a lot of these things were worthwhile, but you get tired of waiting. At the same time, the constant thrum of thousands of people circulating in the same space to talk about design and tech is intoxicating.

Content-wise, SXSW Interactive was a mixed bag. Few of the talks made much use of the big screens, leaving them to roll through the sorts of advertisements one normally finds when waiting for a movie to start. Speakers ranged from the awesome (Clay Shirky rocked it) to the mundane. And while I’d expect a some level of lack of preparation from newbie speakers (the zero waste panel had a member who actually said “what the fuck”), it was surprising how flat the keynote speakers were, people you’d normally expect to bring it.

Favorites:

  • Again, Clay Shirky kicked ass talking about changing the systems to enable changing our paradigms.
  • Robert Fabricant inspired with his examples of world-changing processes in action right now like Project Masiluleke (full disclosure: I’m a frog, but I think Project M is cool).
  • Making snow outside the convention center.
  • Sampling single malt Macallan at the frog party.
  • “Is WordPress killing design? No, lack of imagination is killing design.”

Further thoughts:

  • “Futurist” presentations should be 45 minutes rather than an hour – and no Q&A; these sessions seem especially prone to the “do you actually have a question?” phenomenon.
  • People posing as having questions when they’re standing up to promote themselves/their companies should be gently encouraged way from that  (LifeSize).
  • Biofeedback is not a form of mystical kinesthetic awareness.

Favorite quotes:

  • “augmented mindfulness” – Robert Fabricant
  • “believability is an extremely ductile process” – Bruce Sterling
  • “rainbow unicorn mode of sharing” vs “jackhammer sharing” – Clay Shirky
  • “abundance breaks more things than scarcity” – Clay Shirky
  • napster == “bit torrent that didn’t work very well” – Clay Shirky
  • word for “not sharing with someone when it would make their lives better” == “spiteful” (in relation to the recording industry institutionalizing spitefulness) – Clay Shirky

MLB.com : working against themselves

Last fall we got a Roku player. Pretty cool – Netflix, Pandora, Amazon Video and more right on the big screen (well, our sort of big screen).
Part of the “more” was MLB.com for $14.95. Access to games, stats, “compressed” games and such. Seemed like fun. Seemed like a great deal. Seemed almost too good to be true.

It was.

Six months later, I discovered a charge for $109.95 on my credit card from MLB.com. After a lengthy search on their web site, I found a contact link. No response. I searched the web and found that I’m actually part of a sizable group of people who are pretty pissed off about this surprise.

And that it’s our fault. If we’d only read the fine print (on a later page), we’d have known that MLB reserved the right to charge us 8 times the original price at a later date for a year’s subscription. Without any notice. We’ve dealt with this before, scams that opened our credit cards up to sleazy followup charges, and I make a point of chasing them down and making them go away. Especially when they post those charges days before they’re supposed to, on a Saturday when they’re closed and unreachable.

But it’s tough to fight an opponent who isn’t actually there, who doesn’t engage except with canned responses. So I tried calling them.

As of this date I have about 35 minutes invested on hold to MLB. Only to find that, when taking the option to leave a message, their mailbox was full. Now, this isn’t some mom-and-pop shop we’re talking about, its Major League Baseball. You know, the ones who go make gazillions of dollars on television rights. Oh, and claim copyrights they aren’t entitled to claim – even after being told that by the courts. Oh, and go after children’s groups to protect their trademark. I have to believe they have more than one fricking voicemail box on their system.

So my rhetoric escalated. And their responses remained canned. They indicated they’d honor all requests for refund if submitted no more than 5 days from the date of charge, but then never seemed to get around to actually refunding that money.

Until I suggested that I was considering creating a Facebook/Twitter campaign to see if there might be class action potential here. Ended my message with “remember, you asked for this.”

Suddenly, I was getting emails and voicemails and claims that my refund “was being processed.” And an actual refund!

The thing is, it didn’t have to go this way. We’re baseball fans, and love to watch the games. We might have received a notice from MLB telling us something like “hey, we told you we were going to charge you, but didn’t want you to be surprised ’cause we’re an up front sort of company and we want you to be happy with our product.” The resulting conversation in our house might’ve been something like “well, we like to see the games, $110 for a year is probably okay, don’t you think?”

But it didn’t go that way. Instead, our attitude is now more along the lines of “we will never, ever do business with MLB.com in any way. Period.” MLB.com lost a customer, a subscriber, because they didn’t think about customer satisfaction over revenue. I like to think that’s a sign of the times, that we’re all becoming more sophisticated, more willing to require good business practices.

I remain ever hopeful.

What’s in a name?

I travel a lot – pretty much every week, domestically and internationally. For the most part, things go reasonably smoothly.
That changed recently.

My company uses Egencia, the corporate arm of Expedia, for travel arrangements. Last fall, Egencia started requesting “Secure Flight Info” to comply with TSA regulations. Stuff like middle name, passport number, etc. I entered the data, and was subsequently surprised/dismayed to find everything I booked through Egencia coming up with my name being “Firstmiddle Last” rather than “First Middle Last”. Airlines in particular tend to find this indigestible.

And data tends to propagate, for better or worse. I had my passport pulled transiting through Dubai so that they could “manually update my passport information.” At that point, my official name as far as UAE was concerned was “Firstmiddle Last”.

Having had enough, I found a route to make Egencia aware of their blunder (a nice word for a company that, supposedly, is run by experts in the travel industry). Miraculously, the blunder appears to have been corrected. All is well…

Not so fast.

Transiting through Dubai again, my passport was pulled, again, for “security reasons”. My corrected (but incorrect) information in their system did not match the now-correct information on my travel documents (which now matched the information in my actual passport). Sigh.

And I have found that name error installed into my accounts at several travel sites. Like Virgin America, for example, where I found my name in my account had been helpfully changed to “Firstmiddle Last”. I found I was able to correct that info on their site. Cool.

Big mistake.

This week, on a short hop to the bay area on Virgin, I found myself staring at a page on their site that said “Online Check In is Available” and, less than an inch away, “we are unable to allow you to check in online.” A call to their customer service number connected me with someone who was so focused on following their script that, after 15 argumentative minutes, they were telling me there was no solution even though they had never even asked me for a confirmation number, name or flight. A second call to customer service connected me with the same person (figure the odds there). A third call finally got me to someone who was actually interested in finding out what was wrong. Except that they weren’t allowed to tell me because it had to do with “security issues.” First it was “sir, our site cannot check you in. That’s all I can tell you.” Finally, after a game of 20 questions, it appears it’s not the site, it’s my reservation. The (incorrect) name did not match the (correct) account record. Checking in at the Virgin counter, I was advised that I should go to the TSA site and follow their process for a scary thing called “redress”. Having done that, I’m told they will review my documents within 30 days. I wait with anticipation.

Now, I’ve personally experienced the capriciousness of TSA, watching some agents inflict their personal opinions on passengers even when those opinions contradict TSA policy: I’ve witnessed surprisingly long lectures about packing, and been told my TSA-approved laptop case was “bad to use” because it “endangered the laptop while on the scanner belt.” (Tom Binh take note).  But people do that: have opinions. When a travel company like Egencia adds features or changes account behavior around TSA information, I expect them to do it correctly the first time. So that I don’t have to waste my time.

Chinook

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Chinook is defined in some circles as a warm wind out of the north in winter. That’s why I picked it for a name of the Alaskan Malamute I adopted out of rescue in 1998. She was a warm, quiet, some would say regal, soul in the form of a big snow dog. We spent eight years together, and she was the  center of my life for much of that. They say that rescue dogs end up rescuing their humans; Chinook was no exception. We leaned on each other as we grew older together.

The 7.5:1 ratio isn’t fair, but it’s what you get with a dog. Chinook outpaced me on the aging front, and with rescue dogs you sometimes don’t know how old a dog might be. When I figured Chinook was about 10 or 11, a new vet told me “look at the jaw musculature: this old girl is closer to 14”. The time came, we curled up together for a couple of hours to commune, and the folks at Alpine Hospital were sensitive and wonderful. I put my hand up to her nose as she drifted away,  hoping she’d carry my scent with her on her next adventure.

Months later, I still had the urn with Chinook’s ashes. I’d told myself that I’d take her up into snow country to spread them, but I just couldn’t bring myself to leave her up there alone somewhere, as if she still might be in that jar. One Sunday morning, I woke up to bright sunshine and eight inches of new snow. It occurred to me that I was, for the moment, in snow country, and that Chinook could share my new home even if belatedly. I pulled on trousers and boots and coat, and hiked up the property to a place with a great view. I knelt in the snow and started to unscrew the lid to the urn. It stuck, and as I fumbled with the damn thing the tears came, months after the event, thinking how this little plastic bag in this little jar was all that was left of my dog that I could touch. Such a small container for such a huge presence.

The ashes are in the soil now, and the view is still wonderful, and I have two more Malamutes, rescuing me once again. I think they would’ve liked Chinook.

Edgar

It was time to put Edgar down. He’d had a long life for one of his kind, and deserved to depart peacefully and with respect. Edgar had been having a harder time of it lately, trouble getting up in the morning, not moving very well, and seemed depressed. Sarah decided it was time.

“Edgar is suffering. It’s time we put him down. I want it to be done humanely.”

“Umm, Edgar is a goldfish.”

“Beta. Not goldfish.”

Thus ensued a search, with surprising results, for the most humane way to, er, help a goldfish beta into the next, um, bowl. A quick web search exposed a couple of posts attributing an unusual method to PETA (unconfirmed), which involved basically getting the fish tipsy and then slowly freezing it to death. Even for humans, freezing is considered a relatively comfortable way to die. I would imagine having a buzz on would make it even more comfortable. Unfortunately, our liquor cabinet was a bit on the bare side.

“Okay, let’s do it.”

“All we have is 10-year-old Laphroaig.”

“So?”

“That’s really good whiskey.”

“Sooooo?”

“I mean, it’s really really good whiskey.”

Silence. Extended silence. Of the ‘you’re not hearing me’ sort. Uncomfortable silence.

“Um, okay, let’s have a drink. With Edgar.”

Being the only scotch drinker in the house, it was left to me to have a snort and pour one for Edgar.

Edgar seemed to take to Laphroaig. He went peacefully. I may have even heard distant bagpipes welcoming him…