Mar 152012
 

On account of good behavior, Olivia and Leo got to share an ice cream (okay, frozen yogurt that seems to have far too few calories to possibly be tasty) after dinner. Olivia took delight in being the arbiter of the ice cream, controlling exactly how much her little brother received – but to her credit, she was reasonably fair with the occasional reminder that the treat wasn’t hers alone.

(Courtesy break here to save your RSS reader from too many photos)

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 Posted by at 9:36 am
Mar 072012
 

A few posts ago, I talked about 7.1 surround – and about how though it was mostly unnecessary for movies, I stuck with a 7.1 configuration for our room in the basement when replacing floorstanding surround speakers with wall-mounted versions to make some more space for little things like… actually being able to walk by without bumping into a speaker. The plan was just to replace the surrounds, and to stick with the Infinity Delta speakers I’d long been using as the left/center/right speakers. I knew I’d be tempted to go for consistency – but I didn’t think I’d cave in less than a month!

I had actually decided against making any changes – because getting matching Mirage speakers big enough to handle the relatively large space they’d be in was going to be a pretty expensive undertaking.  We don’t get to watch movies or play games like we used to, so getting the “cost per hour” of the system down to a reasonable level would be hard – whereas the prior system had delivered somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000 hours of service at a price of less than $0.50 per hour (with some of that equipment remaining in service despite the speaker updates – for now!).

What defeated these rational thoughts? Listening, unfortunately. Prior to buying the Mirage OMD-Rs, thoughts posted online fairly uniformly said that while matching the left/center/right speakers with the surrounds was desirable, it was really not that important. But after listening to some material with the new surrounds, there was a clear and noticeable difference in the sound from the rears. An audiophile – which I’m not – would have been able to characterize this precisely; to me, it just felt like there was more clarity and a different timbre. That, and the illusion of an expiring 10% discount from my first purchase with Vanns (the only authorized Mirage dealer), pushed me into placing the order.  I got a pair of OMD-28 for the left and right channels, and an OMD-C2 for the center channel.  The center arrived last Friday, with the main speakers showing up today.

The Mirage OMD line was designed and initially priced for the high end of the market, where prices start to get fairly crazy for barely perceptible differences. Fortunately (for me, I guess not for Mirage), that didn’t work out – and what I paid was about 1/3rd of what the speakers launched at, an amount that still seemed like a lot to spend on speakers. Mirage has been known over the years for an “omnidirectional” design that produces more diffuse sound; the manifestation of this in the OMD-28s and OMD-C2 is probably the strangest driver you’ve seen:

Being designed for a high price point left a few other interesting marks on the product…

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 Posted by at 10:24 am
Mar 022012
 

Leo turned two just a few days after the family came back from Asia. With Valerie and the kids jet lagged, and to make getting up for work tougher for me, we were out buying an orange at 10pm, and Valerie was just starting to work with the kids on making a cake at 11pm. Not electing to put my culinary skills to the test, I took a few pictures of them instead:

This post is relatively light on words, but heavy on images, so I’ll put a break here for any RSS users… Continue reading »

 Posted by at 12:03 pm
Feb 272012
 

By most measures, Valerie is much more active when it comes to finding a “deal” than I am, though we seem to sometimes fit the stereotype that women like deals on things they don’t need, with men paying any price for things they think they do (whether that’s actually the case). I’m not above taking a good deal – hence that bulk purchase of way more used photo equipment than any non-professional needs – but I don’t buy things just because they are cheap. So unsurprisingly, she’s used group buying services like Groupon, Living Social, and Google Offers a decent number of times; by contrast, I just finally used my first Groupon.

Note that I didn’t say that I just bought my first Groupon. That actually happened back in 2010 sometime, when Greg in the office said there was a deal on printing a photo book from Photobook Canada. For some reason, I bought four coupons – I don’t even remember for how much – each of which provided $115 of credit to be applied to a future order. It took a surprising amount of time to actually do this – even though I created just one book for photos from 2008, one for 2009, and made two copies of each. But I really didn’t have a choice, as I’d gotten a half-dozen nag E-mails reminding me that my Groupons were going to expire at the end of February (which I’m sure is part of the overall business model). I had inquired about cancelling for a refund – especially since I now live in the U.S., and Photobook Canada doesn’t even ship to the U.S. – but no dice on that. Fortunately, they do offer local pickup, so we’re going to ask our family back in Toronto to get the books once they’re ready.

I have two sets of comments; one on Groupon as a model, the other on Photobook Canada specifically (prior to having seen the books they produce, which will greatly affect my impression of them in one direction or another). First, on Groupon – and as always, these are just my personal thoughts:

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 Posted by at 10:52 am
Jan 222012
 

I’m not sure how many people here in Washington would figure out that I was a Canadian if I didn’t tell them. No boots, no jacket, no gloves or hat, a car that’s useless in snow and has no chains – I probably seem more like someone from the tropics than a veteran of colder weather. Fortunately, the very mild and pleasant winter we’d been having returned today, with a daytime temperature of somewhere around 7 Celsius (45F).  Since it had already become mild by yesterday, much of the accumulation of snow had already melted off naturally.

Still, our steep driveway doesn’t get as much direct sunlight as other areas, so there was still quite a bit of snow/ice/slush. It was clear that my car wasn’t going to make it (it’s rear wheel drive with low profile tires), but I wasn’t sure about the minivan – it looked like it might be close! Unfortunately, by a large margin, it didn’t have enough traction – in part because there was a layer of ice beneath some areas of snow.  So shoveling the driveway was going to be necessary. Unfortunately, there was one more thing most Canadians have that I don’t – a snow shovel.

As I had a dinner appointment, waiting another day for the snow to melt wasn’t an option, so I looked around the garage for alternatives. Leaf blower? Maybe on the super light snow from last week, definitely not on what was there now. Pouring fuel on the snow and setting it ablaze did appeal to my lazier side, but probably wouldn’t earn many points with the neighbors. Nope, the closest thing to a snow removal tool was a large broom:

With the ice underneath, with a standard broom I’d just have been polishing the ice as if I were curling. Fortunately, this broom had a hard rubber scraper on the reverse side, which was actually quite effective in breaking up the icy bits underneath (this is not solid ice in -5C weather):

Unfortunately, with most of the snow cleared, a bigger challenge emerged – further up the driveway, at our neighbors, there was still a big pile of snow blocking half the driveway. Our neighbor – a student around 20 – came out to help. I had thought the snow pile was because the people who went sledding down our driveway made a small jump or something. He explained that he and his friends built a 6-foot high wall, which later fell down – this was just the remnants of that wall. He still seemed quite proud and impressed of their accomplishment, and a little disappointed I hadn’t seen it standing it all its glory! This also explained why he came out to help as soon as he realized I was clearing the driveway.  Since they packed snow into blocks to make the wall, igloo-style, it was a bit tougher than regular snowfall. Since he had an actual shovel, it wasn’t too hard to clear, but unfortunately, the trusty broom was a casualty of this process:

I guess use as an ice pick just wasn’t something the manufacturers of the broom had in mind!

 Posted by at 11:02 am
Jan 182012
 

Other than gazing at faraway mountain tops, or driving up to the ski hills around Vancouver during Christmas, this past Saturday (January 14th) marked the first time I saw a single falling snowflake since our move out west. Considering how much snow can fall by mid-January in Toronto, this was a welcome relief. When it did snow on Saturday, it was almost laughably mild; it didn’t even feel cold enough to be snowing at all, and it was more or less a light dusting, leaving behind just a few melting and conglomerating globs of ice:

It’s hard to see unless you click for the larger version, but it was mild enough for a bug to be running around on one of those ice-covered pieces of grass.  As I went for a walk around 4pm, most of what fell had already melted in the afternoon sun:

In fact, it had turned into a pretty nice day, and I was carrying my camera specifically to capture the mildness of the first “snowfall” I’d seen in Washington.  By the time I’d made the brisk walk to the western edge of Kirkland, still just wearing a light fabric “jacket” that I sometimes wear inside the office, it felt more like fall than winter:

If I didn’t have a backlog of photos in my camera to process, I might have posted that day about how nice the winter was here. Fortunately, I did have a backlog, because that post would have looked pretty stupid by Sunday afternoon, seeing this when looking out the back door:

I have to say, though, that it was actually pretty beautiful, especially since there was no wind – so the snow was falling very softly.  Even the narrowest branch could still have snow piled neatly on top of it, as if someone was carefully balancing each snowflake in a game of Jenga at the molecular level:

You could hear the neighborhood kids off playing in the distance; some decided to use our long, steep driveway to go sledding (though fortunately stopped faster than the car which made the run a few months ago), and later I saw that another group had tried to roll the snow on our driveway into the start of a snowman!

While the total accumulation wasn’t anything that wouldn’t have been cleaned up overnight back in Toronto, it was a much more significant event around here. Though a good part of the snow melted off over the next day or two, the steep slopes and relative lack of snow clearing infrastructure made for quite a mess and a rash of closures; our office shut down today, and will be closed all day tomorrow, as we’re expecting snowfall that apparently hasn’t been seen since 1996 through the day tomorrow!

The saddest thing is, despite being a Canadian, I don’t even have a winter jacket handy (there’s probably one in a box around here somewhere!), I don’t have a pair of boots or a snow shovel (thanks to living in a condo in Toronto), and my car is the one I bought in the U.S. more than a decade ago which wouldn’t have the slimmest of chances of making it up my driveway.  With the family in Taiwan, I’ve had minimal face-to-face human contact for half a week – other than a poor delivery guy who had to park his truck and pull my 120lb package through the snow by hand yesterday!

 Posted by at 7:02 am
Jan 082012
 

Do more megapixels really matter? Camera manufacturers seem to think so, with the Sony NEX-7 pushing things up to 24MP and Nikon’s forthcoming D800 rumored to have a whopping 36MP. Well, I now have a 25MP photo in my collection:

I always link images to SmugMug’s X3 size, which is pretty big, but well short of 25MP. If you want to see every last pixel, this link is the full sized JPEG. Now, I like this picture independently of any of the technology behind it, simply because in all our thousands of photos we have very few that are of all four of us, which isn’t surprising given that someone has to hold the camera (especially since my camera is configured in a weird way that makes it hard to hand over to someone).  So, what was this picture shot with?

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 Posted by at 9:26 am
Jan 042012
 

It seems with each passing year, we pay less attention to the actual new year itself. 12 years ago, I rang in the new year with my cousins in Malaysia, where there was a huge event on the grounds of the old international airport (relegated to handling a few domestic flights after the opening of KLIA) – while wondering what Y2K chaos might ensure for computer systems. 11 years ago, I was with friends and family in New York City’s Times Square as we welcomed 2001; the size of that affair needs no further description. This year, I went to bed at around 9:30pm (because Olivia still refuses to go to bed on her own), and while I did wake up a couple of hours later, I didn’t even stop to really think that it was the new year until later. I think I was actually playing Starcraft 2 when the new year rolled in!

Still, 2011 was a busy year with lots of change for us – where we live, where I work and the type of work I’m doing, one of our cars (after 10 years with Dopey) , to name a few – and with the kids starting 2011 at 2 years 8 months and 10 months old, the pace of change within the year as they develop is nothing less than astonishing. I haven’t really thought about and don’t really know what to expect or strive for in 2012, which is too bad because I usually do set some goals at the start of the year. But with Valerie and the kids heading to Taiwan for a while shortly, I’ll have some time to think about this. For now, I’ll just share a couple of interesting stats…

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 Posted by at 2:23 pm
Dec 292011
 

 

I had intended to write three travel-related posts consecutively before getting sidetracked with the last post.  I figured that by going from bad (United Airlines) to good (Singapore Airlines) to awful (this post), I might avoid sounding like a perennial complainer.  And indeed, as I mentioned in a recent post on customer service, I really think it’s worth calling out and supporting great customer service (and the companies that provide it) so we get more of it – and less of companies like Travelocity.

You already know that this story doesn’t end well, so I’ll caveat things up front. First, I technically booked through travelocity.ca as opposed to travelocity.com; but were they to tell me that’s a separate corporate entity with a relation in brand only, I’d tell them that I don’t care and that they should be more careful with their brand. Second, this is just one experience; I am sure that some people have good experiences. Much probably depends on which agent your call is routed to, and whether they’re having a good day. Though having communicated with them many times via both phone and E-mail, I must have hit many bad days. Finally, there are definitely things I could have been more proactive about or attentive to. Still, I think customers deserve better.

The context is simple – I needed to go back to Malaysia from Seattle for my mom’s birthday. Since I was no longer living in Canada or flying out of Toronto, which I was pretty familiar with, I had to look for different options and decided to give Travelocity a try (due to a slightly negative experience with Expedia, in which a flight booked with Expedia got cancelled, but I got charged for the hotel I also booked with Expedia anyways; understandable in some respects, yet unpleasant nonetheless).

The first challenge was just finding flights. Like essentially all travel sites, you type in what you want and what feels like 5 minutes later, you get back a list of options (some of which have impossible connection times and other traps to watch out for). I look forward to the day when the awesomely fast Google Flight Search covers the whole world and not just the U.S. Now, I understand that finding optimal flight routes is something of an NP-complete problem, but taking 6 different airlines via different cities isn’t going to work anyways, so it’s unclear that the search space should be that large. Yes, arcane fare rules and airline partnerships probably make matters more complex, and I have no doubt that the people who work on this problem are very smart. But the results aren’t great, yet.

What do I mean by not great? Searching for flights from Seattle to Kuala Lumpur turned up a few options, all with 2+ stops, that were not appealing and also quite expensive. Searching for flights from Los Angeles to Kuala Lumpur and then matching flights from Seattle to Los Angeles offered a whole host of viable options not returned by the first search. You can try it right now! Plugging in this same set of routes (SEA -> KUL versus SEA -> LAX -> KUL), with a random date, the two-part search found flights $70 cheaper – with the same number of stops (2). In my case, the difference was more than $70, and more importantly, I was looking for a decent airline (Singapore Airlines) and also a Star Alliance carrier since that would have put me at the 100k threshold to qualify for Super Elite status for another year. The added inconvenience and time of flying via LAX was easily worth it to earn those miles.

But my gripe is not about the search process not being as good as it could (or should, or will) be. It’s about three things that happened next:

  • As I check in at Los Angeles for the flight to Singapore, the check-in agent tells me that in addition to only having middle seats (which I can accept), that I’m on a special fare that doesn’t qualify for miles. I’ve rarely ever seen such fares, especially not for international travel – but in all cases where I had, it was fully disclosed.  There was no mention of this in any interaction with Travelocity, and I did indeed read all the fare rules.  I read them again after discovering this, complained to multiple people at Travelocity about this, and all they could say was that it’s an airline policy, not their policy, and that I have to talk to the airline about it.  They were utterly uninformed, and this was a serious failure in disclosure.  The net cost of this was approximately 40,000 miles (I earn 2-for-1 through this year due to being Super Elite), which is enough for 1.5 round trip tickets anywhere in North America.  And it put me well out of reach of making Super Elite for next year (which historically meant 50,000 extra miles during the year – another 2 round trip tickets).  Of all the issues, this was the most serious – it still makes me angry thinking about it, especially given their clueless and uncaring response to the issue.
  • Several weeks after booking, I received several E-mails on both flights informing me about changes to the flight schedule – made by the airlines (Singapore and Alaska, in this case).  Flights, in particular the LAX -> SEA flight, moved several times, sometimes backwards, sometimes forward.  I knew I’d have to check this at some point, but assumed that it was just a change of schedule.  In actual fact, my LAX -> SEA flight had been moved earlier enough that there was absolutely no way I was going to be able to clear immigration and customs, walk between terminals (it’s LA!), and go through security to catch my flight. Once I realized this, I called to correct the situation.  Their response?  I should have called sooner, now I’m stuck with unworkable flights, and have to pay $200 to get something later.  I paid less than $200 for the entire round trip initially!  To add insult to injury, they spent a bunch of time trying to convince me that I initiated the change – when I was looking at E-mail directly in front of me that made it clear that I didn’t.  Thank goodness I was calling with Google Voice, or it would have cost a fortune to listen to them tell me that I decided to pick impossible flights for myself.
  • A day later, they get in touch via E-mail to say that my rebooked flight didn’t go through, because my credit card – the same one they had yesterday when they were on the phone with me – has now expired.  Note this isn’t a credit card I had given them; they asked if the same credit card was fine and I said yes, without actually thinking about exactly which card I had originally booked with.  Oh, and in the whole 24 hour period that went by that it took for them to discover what normally happens in the 10 seconds after you click the “Book” button, the fares have changed – upward – and now I have to fly through Portland.

I’ve probably traveled between 800,000 and 900,000 miles by air during my lifetime, but this qualifies as the single worst experience in that entire history of air travel. The only two that come even remotely close are benig told by the now-defunct airline Jetsgo that we our flight out of Newark was cancelled because it was snowing in Toronto (it was over 10 degrees Celsius, and an Air Canada flight was departing at the same time – this was just an outright lie), and being locked in a room for over four hours with my brother while on transit as unaccompanied minors in Los Angeles.

I won’t be using Travelocity again, and I suggest that you don’t either.

 Posted by at 10:25 am
Dec 222011
 

I wrote a post back in July, titled “Is it always better to get better?“, in which I wondered why we try and improve even at meaningless things that don’t have actual value. In my case, the example in question was Starcraft 2, a real-time strategy game I spend far too much time playing.  Despite the utter lack of value or meaning, I nonetheless set a personal goal of making it into Diamond league, which is approximately the top 20% of active 1v1 players.  Being in the top 20% of anything you set your mind to really ought not to be that hard (well, unless you pick a goal around height or some other relatively immutable property), and there’s many thousands of Diamond 1v1 players in Starcraft 2; nonetheless, it took till tonight for me to finally make it.

It’s certainly been more difficult than I anticipated it to be. For a long time, I was really just playing the game, and not actively thinking about how I was playing, and what I needed to improve. I might go in with a plan, but once the actual back and forth combat phases started, I’d just focus on playing things out – and not on what I was trying to do better. The other challenge is that everyone still actively playing the game more than a year after it’s release was also pretty serious. Strategies evolved, things that used to work ceased to, and sometimes even when I felt I was playing near the peak of my ability, I’d take a string of losses.

As I wrote the prior blog post, hitting Diamond was the very last thing I expected.  Starcraft 2 runs in seasons; at the end of each season, you’re locked into your current league, and when a new season begins, you’re slotted into a league for that season based on your cumulative performance to date. It should be harder to get promoted into Diamond than to be placed into Diamond at the start of a season, because there’s a threshold designed to prevent you from ping-ponging between adjacent leagues every few games. The last game I played yesterday wound up being treated as my first Season 5 match, and I was slotted back into Platinum. That really felt appropriate; I had been facing fewer diamond players in recent games, as I’ve been a little sick for about a week. And if there’s one place you really notice when you’re not at 100%, it’s playing something competitive and mentally intense.

Still, with today being the first day that I’ve felt mostly back to normal (after a really full night of sleep yesterday), I decided to play one last game before heading to bed. I’d won a reasonable string of games prior to the earlier blog post, perhaps on account of being back to normal, so I could still lose and not be too bothered about the day’s games as a whole.  It’s harder to sleep after going 3-8! As it turns out, that final game earned a promotion to Diamond. It was a lucky win at that; a Protoss vs. Protoss where he was going for colossi off of one base; I’d anticipated a 4gate and didn’t expand either, but had no robotics support bay (i.e. far from having colossi of my own); I’d have died in a straight ground engagement, but just managed to get enough void rays to hold off the attack, retain my expansion, and win from there off of better momentum and economy.

I’m still by no means great at the game.  There was an internal Google tournament (for fun, but I can’t enter due to timing with the kids), and about 20% of players were Masters level – that’s the top 10% of Diamond, i.e. the top 2% of all players; they’d likely beat me with one hand. But now that I’ve finally got to this entirely meaningless and pointless milestone, I’ll probably finally get to playing other equally pointless but high quality games, like Uncharted 3 and Zelda: Skyward Sword!

If you compare this image to the earlier post, you’ll see that it took me a ridiculous 740 wins – meaning roughly 1480 games (though some of that was 2v2, not 1v1) – between setting the goal and reaching it. That’s a lot of wasted time (probably 400-500 hours) and I’m sure I could have used it for something much more constructive. But at least I got a shiny icon!

 

 Posted by at 10:34 am