obligatory obscure reference

self-deprecating yet still self-promotional witty comment


Public Notice: William Backfisch is using my business phone #

Filed under: Pittsburgh,Rants — jet @ 11:39

For several years now, I’ve been receiving calls from debt collectors and lease agencies on my business line for William Backfisch who lives in greater Pittsburgh. When I started searching online for “Backfisch” instead of “Backfish” I discovered that 412.243.0938 is a number being associated with his name on a variety of web sites.

That’s not his number, it’s been my office line for seven years. So please, really, stop calling me and ignoring the message on the answering machine and asking for William Backfisch.


Engineering Lesson 101

Filed under: Arduino,Hacking,MakerBot,Rants — jet @ 09:46

I think it’s been 10, maybe 15 years since I’ve actually worked on open source software as an author. I’ve helped fix bugs in things like Arduino and ReplicatorG, but I haven’t done anything major on my own.

Until Friday, when my frustration with a certain class of software got the perspective and skill of my being a professional engineer. Instead of complaining, instead of getting frustrated with how someone else managers their project, instead of not being able to pull rank and make them do it my way, I can just go write my own and hand it out.

It’s a nice feeling. I don’t think I’d have gotten here without writing it-cannot-fail code for security and privacy projects as a day job. That sort of rigor is like daily exercise for the brain, like daily exercise or workouts only for the brain.


always compute your hourly wage

Filed under: Rants — jet @ 21:46

When a business asks you to do something, compute your actual hourly before deciding if it’s worth it. It’s amazing how many times a month I get asked to work for less than minimum wage.

Today, for example, I got a request to do a tech review in trade for a copy of the book. Here’s my response:

Sorry, but I’m not interested in doing tech reviews for a copy of the book on a subject where I’m already an expert. Back in the 90s I got paid decent bank per-section to do tech reviews, I see no reason to work for less than minimum wage at this point in my career.


maker hell

Filed under: Hacking,MakerBot,Rants — jet @ 08:39

Well, that didn’t go so well. After a couple of weeks of fussing and fighting with Gen 4 electronics it appears I have a bad motherboard. Countless hours of diags down the drain because of a bad board.

Something we in the open source hardware need to adopt is the idea of standardized tests / QE. If I were at work, the first thing we’d have done was toss the mobo in the “to be re-tested” pile and grabbed a fresh one to see if we could replicate the problem.

On the up side, while researching the problems I was having, I stumbled across a great blog that every Makerbot owner should read.


another day, another facebook privacy policy screwup

Filed under: Rants — jet @ 10:00

I do privacy and security stuff for a living, so I can honestly say that Facebook doesn’t have to make everything opt-in by default. They could just as easily do opt-neutral or even opt-out by default, but they’ve decided to err in favor of stalkers and data miners.

Facebook has added a new privacy setting called “Instant Personalization” that shares data with non-Facebook websites BY DEFAULT. You have to manually go and turn it off you don’t want Facebook to share your data with non-Facebook websites.

On top of that, Facebook will still let your friends share information about you on other sites unless you block the individual applications.

You can turn off the data sharing by Facebook within Facebook settings: Account > Privacy Settings > Applications and Websites -> Instant Personalization -> Edit Setting

To block the Applications, you have to go to each and every Application within Facebook and individually block it:

Pandora: http://www.facebook.com/apps/application.php?id=139475280761

Yelp: http://www.facebook.com/apps/application.php?id=97534753161

docs.com: I haven’t found the app yet.


Attention Pittsburgh Broadcast Media!

Filed under: Pittsburgh,Politics,Rants — jet @ 12:44

Given the number of negative attack ads running on the TV and radio, I find myself unable to watch your channel or listen to your station. Between now and the day after the election, I will only be watching national news that I’ve recorded on my TiVo DVR, and even those shows I will not be watching those in real-time.

This is something you, the local media, have a say in. You are able to refuse ads, so why not set some civil standards? Only accept ads paid for by the candidates and only those ads that spend at least 3/4 of their time talking about the candidate and not the opponent. Or only accept ads aren’t currently debunked by factcheck.org.

But you, the local media, have decided to take every dollar and any ad that comes along. I find myself regularly turning off KQV as soon as an attack ad starts and listening to NPR or a CD. Soon, I’ll stop turning in to KQV all-together and spend a few minutes looking at the traffic online before I leave the house rather than waiting for a traffic report on the radio.

Same goes for local TV stations — why should I wade through repeated attack ads that insult my intelligence and damage the democratic process on local TV when I can tune to an international news channel or go to my computer and get the news and weather there?

You need to have viewers and listeners to justify your ad rates, and to get us, you need to broadcast content we want. I don’t mind ads for things I might want, but ads that make me angry also make me change to another station, CDs, or the Internet.

[tags]media, pittsburgh, politics,[/tags]


What do newcomers to Pittsburgh say when they’re back home?

Filed under: , The Future Of,Pittsburgh,Rants — jet @ 16:12

Since moving to Pittsburgh I’ve been exposed to the constant refrain of, “How do we get businesses/people to come to Pittsburgh?” Since any answer requiring Pittsburgh to change is probably going to be ignored, I think there’s a different question we need to ask. That question is, “How can we make Pittsburgh, PA a place that new residents speak highly of when they’re back visiting their home towns?”

I’m one of those people — I spend a fair amount of time back in California or at least emailing/chatting with friends of mine in San Francisco, Mountain View, Palo Alto, etc.

Lately I feel like I’ve been as frustrated with Pittsburgh (and Pittsburghers) as not. For every sales pitch I make to a friend back in Cali involving low property prices and access to local farm produce I seem to have an equally horrid story about things like the idiocy of stopping on on-ramps instead of merging, the massive taxes with no open records laws or other ways of finding out where my money goes, or the state bureaucracy in general.

Today I got bit by a combination of two things — the Pittsburgher attitude of “what do you mean you didn’t know that, everyone here knows that?” and a state bureaucracy from hell. We’re (you’re) not going to be able to convince people that this is a great place to move to until stories like this stop being what newcomers tell when we’re back visiting our friends in other states. Maybe that requires changing state and local government or maybe it just means not treating newcomers to Pittsburgh like we’re aliens or mentally challenged.

Those of you who’ve never lived in Pennsylvania will probably be surprised by how vehicle registration works. First off, you don’t go to the local Department of Motor Vehicles or Department of Public Safety to register your car in the state. Nope, the only thing you can do at a PENNDOT office is deal with driver’s licenses. All vehicle registrations must be done at the state capitol in Harrisburg, PA.

No, I’m not making this up. Vehicles can only be registered at the state capitol.

That’s pretty out of the way for most of us. To make things easier, the state has allowed certain companies, known as “messenger services”, to do the business of taking your paperwork to the capital for you. And no, it’s not free, nor even cheap.

This week I finally got around to registering a vehicle I bought while out of state after moving to PA. It’s a vintage bike, there’s only one dealer in town for this make, and it’s a good 30-45 minute drive away so I call ahead to see what I need to bring. Title, PA driver’s license, and proof of insurance, then pass safety inspection. Since it’s an obscure bike, I’m going to the dealer on the off chance I need some random part to pass inspection.

Today I roll into the dealership, paperwork in hand. First surprise: I have to pay PA sales tax on any purchase made in another state. (So, when I’m on vacation, do I need to pay tax for gifts I buy and bring back to my friends here?) It takes a good 30 minutes to do all the paperwork and then the clerk says, “ok, now I need two checks. One for $x for the state and one for $y for us.”

This caught me off guard, and since I rarely carry my checkbook these days I just kinda sputtered, “Uh, what? Nobody said anything about bringing checks when I called. Can’t I use a charge card or an ATM card or something?”

The clerk was not apologetic, but explained in that slow way you talk to people you think aren’t paying attention, “We can’t give the messenger service a credit card, we can only give them checks.” It wasn’t condescending as much as, “how can you not know that you need to pay for this by check? Everyone knows that you have to have a check.” Hell, I didn’t even know what a “messenger service” was until today, much less that I needed to pay for things with checks.

So, 3 hours driving/waiting and still no title transfer, no inspection, no nada. I go back tomorrow — with a checkbook this time — in hopes of finishing this.

This isn’t the sort of story that my friends back home need to hear. They need to hear how trivial it was go to to PENNDOT and drop off all the paperwork at once. They need to hear that when someone who didn’t grow up here is trapped in some sort of bureaucratic nonsense that the locals will be sympathetic, not just throw up their hands and say, “sorry, that’s just not how it works here”.

[tags]bureaucracy, penndot, pennsylvania, pittsburgh, rants[/tags]


Am I the Only Person Embarrassed by This?

Filed under: , The Future Of,Pittsburgh,Politics,Rants — jet @ 14:56

So, yet another day where the single-party government’s fight over how many people should get free cars and how high the reimbursement cap for private use vehicles is front page news.

This is completely embarrassing.

Imagine, if you will, that a rich pal of mine is visiting from the San Francisco Bay Area this week scouting out potential business locations or startups to fund. They pick up the paper a few times while they’re here and they see the continual “battle” played out on the front page between the Mayor’s office and Council over use of city vehicles and high reimbursement caps and they ask me for some background.

What do I tell my pal? That things are so f-ing great here, that our roads are in such good shape, we have such good public transportation, the schools are so well run, and that the crime rate is so low that the only thing council has on their agenda is finishing off a few minor budget items? Or that years of single-party rule have created a government so inefficient and unconcerned with the City of Pittsburgh that feel the best use of their time is a long, public debate about how many city employees get free cars and how many hundreds of dollars a month they can be reimbursed for private use of vehicles?

No number of boards or committees or projects or events designed to convince business to move here can make up for our elected officials acting like petty children in public. Between this, the no-bids process for putting up signs, and giving the poor, penniless Steelers a few million to build new facilities while they pay Big Ben over a hundred million I’m beginning to see why Pittsburgh might have a problem attracting new businesses.

[tags]pittsburgh, rants[/tags]


Pittsburgh gets spy cameras, London decides they don’t work

Filed under: Pittsburgh,Random and Pleasing,Rants — jet @ 20:10

It looks like Pittsburgh is going to take $2.6 million in federal funds (aka “taxpayer money”) to deploy surveillance cameras around the city.

Meanwhile, London has discovered after spending 200 million pounds (US $300 million) of taxpayer money that surveillance cameras aren’t that useful:

“A comparison of the number of cameras in each London borough with the proportion of crimes solved there found that police are no more likely to catch offenders in areas with hundreds of cameras than in those with hardly any.”

So, why is city government so ready to waste taxpayer money to spy on law abiding citizens? Is it because it’s “someone else’s money”, aka federal tax dollars? Is it so they look like they’re doing something to solve local crimes in the future rather than deal with the current crime probem?

[tags]crime, Pittsburgh, suveillance[/tags]


Are Pittsburghers Friendly to Business?

Filed under: , The Future Of,Pittsburgh,Random and Pleasing,Rants — jet @ 10:05

When I hear people talk about Pittsburgh, they will often say how friendly the people are. In the year or so I’ve lived here, I’ve generally found that to be true. Save for being yelled at (in yinzer) by a security guard who thought I was trying to park illegally and who continued to yell at me after I pointed out I was a customer of the parking lot’s owner, individual people have been pretty nice. When I moved to San Francisco, I was surprised to discover that people in a city were nice and personable, and it’s much the same here in Pittsburgh. It’s rare that someone is outright rude to your face here and you’re not a freak of nature if you’re chatty with the person next to you in line outside a concert. Granted, it gets taken to extremes in some cases (like the notorious “Pittsburgh Left”) but pretty much everyone I’ve met here has been kind and helpful on a personal level.

When it comes to business and customer relations things change quite a bit. It’s been my experience that Pittsburgh business owners are often not friendly when it comes to business and customer relations and from what I can tell, that doesn’t seem to bother many people here. (The area is also unfriendly to visitors or newcomers at a systems level, but I’ll save that for a different entry.) I don’t mean that the local governments aren’t interested in having businesses locate here or that they are hostile to business in general, I suspect that local governments very much want businesses to move here and stay. I’m talking about the sort of unfriendliness that results from impolite business behavior and not caring about your customers and even taking their business for granted.

A few examples of what I’ve experienced:

“Special order something I don’t normally stock? Why would I want to do that?”
I am unable to get anyone here in Pittsburgh to sell me a set of Medico locks. I don’t know if it’s because I only want three or if it’s because they have to be special ordered, but none of the locksmiths I’ve talked to have ever followed through on call backs. I’ve visited stores in person and left phone messages stating my clear intent and willingness to pay for the order in advance, but I still can’t find someone who wants to take my money. I had a similar experience trying to order office furniture — the local store was the only authorized distributor, I knew exactly what I wanted, was willing to pay in advance, and yet it took almost a month to simply place an order. If there’s a concern about returned items, it’s trivial to charge a restocking or return fee, or to simply say that no returns are allowed on special orders.

“I decided to take a long holiday on short notice, hope that wasn’t a problem.”
The local Mail Boxes Etc closed down for all of the Thanksgiving weekend without giving what I consider a quite reasonable one week notice. Of course they’ll be closed on Thanksgiving, but closed on Friday and Saturday as well? Many businesses are open Friday (including mine) and many of us work on Saturdays. I use MBE so I can have expensive items shipped overnight and “signature required” and not have to worry about missing the delivery because I was in the shower or out on an errand. When I see that the MBE has signed for something, it’s trivial to run over and pick it up a few minutes later. Right now I have several packages waiting for me, at least one of which I needed for work over this weekend. Had I known the MBE was going to be closed over the holidays, I’d have made other delivery arrangements. (And had I known they did this sort of thing before I rented my box, I’d probably have rented a box from someone else, someone willing to keep reasonable business hours.)

This has also happened with sales reps a couple of times — I’m told I’ll get a quote in the next day or two, then three or four days later I call back to discover that the rep has gone on vacation. Either it’s not worth the bother to get me the quote before they leave or they just take it for granted I’m going to buy from them no matter what.

“Yeah, I can do that.” Weeks pass. “You know, I haven’t gotten around to that yet.”
Business cards are easy, especially when the customer has InDesign/EPS files all ready to go. Yet, somehow, it took me 4+ weeks to get a local shop to make my cards. I could have gone to Minuteman/Kinkos, but I really wanted to support a local shop. I got all sorts of great explanations for why my cards were delayed, but they never came with firm dates or offers of a discount. The only reason I didn’t cancel the order and go somewhere else is that I wanted to see how long it could possibly take someone to print a simple set of business cards.

“Customer Service? We don’t carry that.”
I’ve had several really poor customer interactions with locally owned and operated businesses and I think it’s because customers here have lowered their expectations far below the national norm. Having to repeatedly call a business to find out if they can sell me something is apparently not terribly unusual here, nor is waiting for a sales rep to end their personal conversation and find out how it is they can help me. When I complained to a business owner that their employees trashed the job site and that I spent the better part of an hour cleaning up their garbage (cigarette buts, soda cups, etc), I expected someone would call me back and at least apologize. Sure, they already got my money and I signed off on the work, but does it occur to them that they might want me for a future reference?

Here’s the thing that makes me really cranky about this — before I moved out here I only sat foot in a national store as a last resort. I’m used to crappy customer service from chains and national stores, and excellent customer service from locally owned businesses. I’d always go to local hardware, metal and lumber suppliers before going to Home Depot, Airgas, Graybar, or Grainger. I didn’t mind paying a few percent more if it supported a locally owned and operated business and the service was typically better than I’d get from some place where I was just a customer number. But given the negative experiences I’ve been having with locally owned businesses I’m starting to think I might be happier as a faceless customer account number with a national chain.

This isn’t to say that all my experiences with local businesses have been bad. I’ve had many good experiences with local businesses and trades, but all of the significantly negative experiences have been with locally owned outfits who really don’t seem to care much about getting or keeping my business. It’s gotten to the point where I now assume I’ll deal with a national or regional business when I need something, and that’s not an assumption I like making. When I start buying welding consumables in the near future, I want to support a local business, but I’m ready for the reality that I might be driving past many locally owned shops on my way to Airgas.

So what’s the fix?

I don’t know that there is a “fix” for people being inconsiderate or unfriendly. How do you convince someone to be friendly or professional other than by setting a good example? For my specific problems, there are a few things that might make me feel better, but will those things really improve things for their other customers and businesses? Will complaining to MBE’s corporate office do anything other than piss off the people who own the local franchise? If I call up a business’s owner at home and say, “Hey, I wrote a letter to your company about your employees trashing a job site, why didn’t anyone respond?”, is that really going to accomplish anything? I’ll probably contact Medico and ask them to put me in touch with a locksmith who actually wants to sell me a set of locks, but what if they point me at the people who already don’t want my business? Do I rat them out to Medico or just find a locksmith in a nearby town?

One thing I am considering is letting local businesses know why I’m not dealing with them any longer and instead going with a national chain or mail order. On the chance that the owner is interested in keeping me as a customer they’ll have a chance to fix the situation, or maybe once they see how much money they could have made on a sale they’ll be more attentive to future requests.

I keep hearing people say that Pittsburgh has a lot of potential and a lot of opportunities for new business. I used to think that simply meant real estate and labor were cheap, but now I’m thinking it might also be a polite way of saying something more subtle: “There are a lot of opportunities here because your competition probably isn’t very interested in working to get customers and keep them happy. All you have to do is keep the doors open and treat the customers well and you’ll succeed.”

[tags]business, Pittsburgh[/tags]

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