Good Customer Service from Hotwire

There’s an old truism that if you get good customer service, you tell two people, but if you have a bad experience, you’ll tell 10. So here’s my small attempt to balance the scales:

Hotwire, you guys rock. Not only do you help me book good, inexpensive rental cars, but when I needed to cancel our vacation last week, your Customer Service staff told me exactly what I needed to do to request a refund, and then they processed the refund quickly. And this despite Hotwire’s very firmly stated ‘no refund’ policies. (No, I did not purchase trip insurance.)

Things have been stressful enough around here; you helped lessen my stress. I’m deeply grateful, and you can bet I’ll be using Hotwire again in the future.

Notes from the Kitchen

Two quick food & cooking related notes from the past weekend:

1) We’ve made the Roasted Tomato & Fennel soup recipe we came up with several times over the past few months, always to great acclaim. As a follow-up, Scott decided to try a new version of the recipe with a medley of roasted root vegetables (carrot, parsnip, and turnip, plus a leek and some garlic cloves). We weren’t sure whether beef of chicken stock would go better in this version, so we did a split-test and did half-batches in separate pots with the different stocks. The result was tasty, but not quite as successful as the tomato-fennel version. We’ll try again with some other combinations in the not too distant future.

2) We saw Ratatouille. I share Ruhlman’s highly positive take on the piece — with one caveat. My feminist funnybone got dinged by the fact that the movie was set up so that Remy the rat ALWAYS knew better than Colette when it came to food. She’s presented as a highly talented line cook who worked her butt off to get where she was. Couldn’t she be right at least once?

Unexpected Happiness: We Saw ‘The Police’ Live!

So around lunchtime yesterday, Scott IMed me with some Big News: a co-worker of his was looking to unload two tickets to The Police concert at Oakland Coliseum. Did we want to go?

HELL YES!

The Police broke up before I started going to concerts, so I always assumed I’d never have the chance to see them live. Then, when they announced their “30th Anniversary tour” I figured there’d be no way I’d manage to snag tickets. Instead, the tickets came to us. Nice how that worked out.

I didn’t have time to do much planning, and cameras weren’t allowed anyway, so this is the best I could do for a photo:

Oakland Coliseum

I’d never been to a stadium concert before, and the sheer size of the venue was definitely a drawback. But other than that — and the absolutely horribly bad opening act — we had a fantastic time. Wikipedia has a full set list, if you’re interested in that sort of thing.

Despite Stewart Copeland’s grousing, the band sounded very tight and polished to me. There were one or two moments when I thought I caught a bobble as the band transitioned into the next song, but other than that, they played extremely well for just short of two hours, including encores. Sting had to work fairly hard to get the audience energy up (I think this is where the stadium size was an issue) but the last 40 minutes or so was a big rock-out.

In short, if you get a chance to catch the tour, do so. It’s worth it.

On Web 2.0 and Unoriginality

Recently, we started using Basecamp at the office to manage some current projects. It’s working out well for some things — to-do list management and assigning tasks, for example — and it’s certainly easier to use and has a much faster learning curve than Microsoft Project. Yet I am also very frustrated by the limitations — trying to actually edit a document in their whiteboard means giving up a lot of functionality that I take for granted, for example — and this was compounded by some server-side outages I ran into while working. Each outage was relatively brief (a minute or two, maybe), but it was no fun to be kicked out of flow and brought to a complete standstill each time they happened. I eventually finished the document in MS Word and dropped the finished text into the whiteboard, rather than risk further interruptions.

In short, as far as I’m concerned, this aspect of Web 2.0 is not as great as it’s cracked up to be. And according to Wired‘s Michael Calore I’m not the only one who feels that way:

In general, I found that the browser is perfectly suitable for a variety of daily office tasks — e-mail, writing and editing stories. I also lived through several technological breakdowns that had me pounding my desk in frustration, wondering what the hell I had gotten into.

Yep, that sounds about right.

But there’s more to this than the purely personal issue of having to unlearn years or even decades of computing habits. What frustrates me the most about the whole Web 2.0 ‘the browser is the application’ paradigm is how essentially unoriginal it is.

A lot of very talented and dedicated people are spending countless hours (and investment dollars) solving problems that have already been solved, and in some cases, solved very well. Look at TurboTax, to pick a handy tax-week example. It’s a great, absolutely best-of-breed application. How much time and treasure did it cost Intuit to port TurboTax to the web? What new stuff could they have done with those people and that money instead? We’ll never know.

What I would really love to see is people spending all that time, talent, and money on solving the problems that have NOT been solved yet. Search technology, for example. We’ve made some big strides in text-based search (although there is still much do do there too), but searching around graphics, video, or audio is lagging far behind. Or if you want to focus on web-based technology, can someone please come up with a cross-platform web conferencing system that doesn’t suck? Or, as Bruce Schneier pointed out in another Wired article, how about solving some of the security issues that still plague the computing world?

Wouldn’t it be great if Web 2.5 were about solving new problems, instead of re-solving the old ones?

Choosing and Learning a Photo Editing Application

Apropos of my comments on the last photo I posted, I need to find a good graphics editing application. I already have at least three of them on my hard drive (not including whatever graphics apps came as part of Windows XP or MS Office): Photoshop 7, ImageReady and Picasa. And of those three, none quite meets my needs.

Photoshop, is, of course, the gold standard when it comes to graphics manipulation applications. It can be made to do just about anything, if you know how to do it (and can stand waiting for the program to load — it takes forever, and I have a pretty good system here). And really, that’s the problem. Even after a number of years, I have no clue how to use 80% of what Photoshop has to offer. There are a lot of books and classes out there for Photoshop, so it’s not like I can’t fill in the gap. And I may end up doing that if I can’t find a better alternative. But still, using Photoshop for my personal photo editing feels like I’m using a Formula 1 race car to go buy the groceries. It’s nice to have all that power, but I’d really prefer to have a daily driver for just puttering around town.

I also have Adobe’s ImageReady program. It’s more or less a junior version of Photoshop, with some of the high-powered editing taken out and some new features added to make resizing photos for the Web easier. And you’d think that would be exactly what I was looking for, given my complaints about Photoshop? Well, it is, but it’s not. I hate the selection of filters that come in ImageReady. Adobe left all the cutesy filters — like the ones that will make your image look like a charcoal drawing or a mosaic — and took out the few Photoshop filters I actually knew how to use and liked using. I can crop and resize photos with ease, but editing them is still a hassle.

Finally, I have Picasa. And I don’t like it either. It’s reasonably intuitive to use, and does about 90% of what I need it to as far as photo editing goes, but unfortunately it also doubes as a photo management system. I’ve been keeping photos on my hard drive for a long time. I have a system in place for organizing them, and I really do not need Picasa trying to impose its own methodology onto my system. Even more annoying is the fact that you have to go through a series of steps and export photos into a new folder if you want to actually view the changes you have made to your photos in any application other than Picasa. More than anything else, this is a dealbreaker. It’s a huge pain in the butt. If I open a photo for editing, I want to keep the edits! I don’t want to have to export the editied photo to a new directory to have an edited version of my original photo. Finally, since Google owns Picasa, the interface is geared towards Gmail and Blogger, with no interface at all for Flickr.

On the OSS side of the house, I tried The Gimp on my Mac at work. Meh. It’s powerful but the UI was kind of a pain.

There are probably hundreds of alternative applications out there. Scott has already suggested a couple for me to try, and try them I shall. But I’d like to hear from you, too. What’s your favorite photo editor? If it’s Photoshop, how did you learn to get the most out of it?

A Trip To The Movies

For a lot of reasons, Scott and I haven’t been to the movies in a long time. Last night, though, we finally got over to the theater in downtown San Mateo to catch X-Men: The Last Stand (don’t worry, no spoilers to follow).

It was OK. Not as bad as I’d been lead to expect from the reviews, but not OMG awesome either. Some of the ‘continuity’ issues bothered me more than others. I’m fine with the fact that some changes need to be made to turn a comic book into a movie. But others just didn’t make sense. Argh. I really don’t want to give spoilers, so I’ll just leave it at that for now.

On the bright side, Kelsey Grammer turned out to be a hoot as the Beast. And what’s not to like about Hugh Jackman and Halle Berre?

As a bit of a bonus, there was also a tiny “DaVinci Code” protest going on outside the theater. Four people and two signs, plus a couple of bored-looking cops to make sure nothing got out of hand.

Seen Oustide The Theater Tonight

Nice juxtaposition of the US flag in there. *Sigh* I guess some people just don’t understand the concept of movies being fictional entertainment.