July 2004

Mouse hair

by Michael Alderete on 7/28/2004

Fifteen years ago, I began my post-college career providing front-line computer support in the Office of the Chancellor at UC Berkeley. I was taking care of 125 Mac users, most of whom had Macintosh SE systems.The number one problem people had was “My password doesn’t work,” for which the solution nearly always was “Turn off your Caps Lock key.” You gotta love end users. (Interestingly, Mac OS X and Windows XP both provide visual feedback when the Caps Lock key is down and you are typing into a password field. I could have taken two-hour lunches if that had been around back then…)

The second most frequent problem people had was “My mouse isn’t working anymore.” The solution for this was to go visit the user with my micro tweezers, take out the mouse ball, and tweeze out the hair, dust, fuzz, and other gunk that inevitably got into mechanical mice. This was something I probably did twice a week all year long at work, and for myself at home, 3-4 times a year. The difference in mouse smoothness afterwards was always amazing, and it was this issue that finally made me go out and buy a new optical mouse a few years back.

When I went optical I thought my problems with cat hair and other gunk getting into my mouse would be over. Today, while checking out why clicking and scrolling had started acting weird, I learned different.

While there is no mechanical aspect to mouse movement tracking, the scroll wheel (which I love love love) and regular buttons are still mechanical. When I opened up my mouse and peeked around, I found enough hair for a whole ‘nother cat, wrapped around the scroll wheel’s spindle. Cleaning it all out was oddly nostalgic — a job once again for the micro tweezers.

As I was doing it, I again found myself marveling at the wonderful design of my Logitech Cordless Optical Mouse. Removing two screws allowed me to lift off the top part of the mouse. Inside, it was easy to remove the mouse wheel to get at all the little places where hair had lodged. I wouldn’t call the design “user serviceable,” but it certainly wasn’t difficult. If you can handle a screwdriver and pay attention to where the three wheel parts go, it’s quite easy to take the mouse entirely apart and put it back together afterwards.

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Great customer service

by Michael Alderete on 7/23/2004

Just this last week I had two great customer service experiences. With all the horrible customer service most companies provide, via outsourced call centers or worse, the great companies deserve to be noticed and praised, and patronized.

First, my DSL connection went out. Rochelle got me out of bed early Sunday with a “Honey, is the internet working?” After a couple of quick tests, it was clear the problem wasn’t on my end. I called our DSL provider, Speakeasy, and opened a trouble ticket.

What was remarkable was that (a) I didn’t wait on hold for more than 2 minutes before I spoke with the first human being. And (b), she was the only person I spoke to, because instead of being an idiot reading from a script and telling me to power cycle my computer / router / coffee maker, she knew her shit, and we quickly ran through real troubleshooting steps that allowed her to isolate the issue to being outside my network. She wrote down my particulars, and told me what she was going to do, and how Speakeasy was going to get the problem solved.

Four hours later, Rochelle and I were taking an afternoon nap (it was Sunday), and we got a phone call. Speakeasy, letting us know that they had found a bad circuit card in the network center, and replaced it. Would we try our connection and see if things were working again? Sure enough, everything was good.

Not 10 minutes later, I received an e-mail message asking me to rate my recent ticket support. Speakeasy follows up every trouble ticket to ask you how they did. They are not afraid of getting feedback, because they work very hard to make sure it will always be positive. And I gave them the top rating across the board, because they’d earned it, by being quick, treating me like an intelligent person, and being proactive and following up, instead of just silently closing the ticket when they found and replaced the bad card. (It’s amazing how many companies close tickets when they find a problem, without checking back to see if it was the problem.)

My other great experience was simpler. I was working on some HTML pages for a web site for Rochelle, using the finest text editor available, BBEdit. And, when trying to select a menu choice I’ve used many times before, the item was grayed out, inactive. I tried a bunch of things, and couldn’t figure it out. So, on a Saturday, I sent off an e-mail inquiry to Bare Bones Software‘s technical support. Less than a day later, still on the weekend, I got back an e-mail from the director of technical support, which not only had the answer, but also guessed (correctly) at how it had happened. It turns out that a third-party plug-in I had recently installed does something bad, and that bad thing has the effect of disabling the command I wanted.

So (a) they knew exactly what the problem was immediately, and (b) the problem wasn’t created by Bare Bones, but they addressed it anyway. That’s great customer service.

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Cooking school

by Michael Alderete on 7/22/2004

Another thing I was pretty busy with was a 12-week cooking course I took through HomeChef. I’d finally saved up enough gift certificates, and also signed up early enough to be a prep assistant. The course covers basic home cooking techniques, and sends you home equipped to cook 3-4 new recipes a week, along with an appreciation for basic processes that let you cook more confidently from any cookbook, or on your own. It’s not professional cooking school, but it’s quite a step up from watching cooking shows on TV.

Taking the course as a prep assistant means you arrive 1 1/2 hours early to help set up the demonstration trays that making teaching the class look so effortless. This involves things as simple as dicing onions and measuring out primary ingredients like flour or oil, but on some nights it’s as complicated as preparing a soufflé all the way up to before you bake it (the high point of the class for me).

The class session itself lasts two hours, and most of the students simply sit in the audience, watch and ask questions, and then get to eat the food that’s prepared. It’s more social than a cooking show, and you actually get fed, but I learned so much by working prior to the class, it wasn’t clear to me how much non-participating students were learning. While I understand that people have busy lives, and making a 3 ½ hour commitment for 12 weeks is really hard, I just don’t know that I would even consider taking cooking classes where I was not participating.

On the other hand, the first part of every class session was a review of the prior week, when people could talk and ask questions about their “homework,” i.e., cooking what they’d learned. There were quite a few people who were making the effort to cook at least 1-2 dishes each week, and always had good questions for the instructor.

I found that trying to cook every dish each week was a huge commitment, bigger than the class itself. I stopped trying after roasting a whole chicken, and decided that (at least in the Bay Area) it makes more sense to pick up a whole roast chicken at Costco or a good grocery store than it does to buy it raw and spend 3 hours making a meal around it myself. The bought bird costs $2-4 less, comes out better, and the only thing you’re missing is gravy. (And I have a great recipe for cracked pepper gravy that doesn’t require meat juices, so I’m OK there.) Instead, I simply tried to make the one dish a week that I thought was the best.

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Quiet, busy, the house…

by Michael Alderete on 7/20/2004

Been awfully quiet here in the past few months, with my last active posting going on in February. That was when we started the painting project for the bedroom, which we did eventually mostly almost finish. Our original intent was to move onto the parlor and office, which are connected through pocket doors that are nearly always open.

We didn’t do that. Instead, we decided that we couldn’t take the various stains on the light blue-gray carpet that covered half the house. (Two years ago we got rid of the other half, by putting in hardwood floors, which we are still in love with.) Time for new carpet.

Rochelle and David had already spent months finding just the right pattern and color, so when Rochelle’s twice-yearly ESPP kicked out a chunk of change, we decided to go for it. This involved moving everything out of three rooms (including, once again, the bedroom) for a day. And because of the noise and the strangers in the house during the installation, the cats liked this less than the painting. Let’s just say that Billie didn’t stop at puking this time.

But the carpet was fast, in no small measure because we weren’t the ones installing it. We were moving furniture back into all three rooms by the end of the day. We got a lot of the big stuff, but three months later, we still haven’t moved everything back to where it should go.

This is because we’ve decided not to move anything until we’ve decided where it really belongs. Which means we’re throwing out crap, giving away crap, selling off crap, taking crap down to the basement, etc.

To go with the lovely new carpet, we also bought all new furniture for the office. It’s all from IKEA, so it was reasonably cheap. Two bookcases, a three-level horizontal filing cabinet, and two huuuuge new desks for probably less than a grand, and the office is far more usable. And if we ever actually paint the office, it’s going to look really fabulous, too. Which will be good for me, since it looks like I will continue to be self-employed (gainfully, really) for a while. It’s almost to the point to where I could have clients visit!

In the last few weekends, we’ve moved a bunch of stuff to the basement, taken a bunch of stuff from the basement and either thrown it out or taken it to Goodwill, and generally spent a good 30+ hours working on house organization. It’s starting to feel good!

We also had a friend, who is a professional contractor, come and paint, stain, and varnish our brand new back door, which is really beautiful, with small glass panels framed in wood, and lets far more light into the house. The new door framing and brand new weather stripping mean it seals far better than the old door; in spite of being glass, the kitchen is actually 10 degrees warmer than it was before. This is going to be great this coming Winter.

Anyway, all of this is to catch up, and explain a little bit about why no posting. We’ve been really, really busy!

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Spam counts for Q2

by Michael Alderete on 7/1/2004

So, with the end of the first half of the year, I thought break my silence by taking another look at the level of spam flowing into my mailboxes, and how well my tools are coping with it. First, here are the stats for Q2:

Filtered Mail

6674 Good Messages
16976 Spam Messages (72%)

SpamSieve Accuracy

52 False Positives
71 False Negatives (58%)
99.5% Correct

And here are the stats for the first half of the year:

Filtered Mail

20554 Good Messages
39595 Spam Messages (66%)

SpamSieve Accuracy

83 False Positives
270 False Negatives (76%)
99.4% Correct

You can review my previous post for the Q1 details, but the overall trends are:

  • SpamSieve increased its overall accuracy, but the number of false positives (legit messages marked as spam) went up, which is a bit troubling.
  • The actual amount of spam I received was down, but as a percentage of my mail stream, it was up. (This is because my legitimate mail traffic is down 50% after I unsubscribed from some mailing lists.)
  • 75% less spam reached my Inbox (71, vs 270 in Q1).

The overall reduction in spam traffic is encouraging, and proof that the pobox.com mail filters that I enabled at the end of Q1 are doing a tremendous job at rejecting spam coming to my oldest e-mail address.

The one really irritating new trend this past quarter, which doesn’t show up in the stats, is the number of bounces and anti-virus error messages hitting me. The alderete.com and aldosoft.com domains have been spoofed (forged) in a lot of spam and worm traffic, and because I have my domains “wild carded” to accept e-mail for “any-address@alderete.com”, the result is I get a lot of crap in my Inbox that is intended to let “pigxwnslesps@aldosoft.com” know that the crap didn’t go through.

So I’ve been compiling a list of the e-mail aliases I actually use (quite a lot because I use custom addresses with various vendors and web sites, so I can track who sells my address to spammers, turn off specific addresses, etc.), with the intent that I’ll enable those, and disable the wild cards. I hope to do that over the holiday weekend, and expect it to have almost as dramatic effect on crap coming in as the improved pobox.com spam filters.

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