April 12, 2014

Spring cleaning

Filed under: Geek — By @ 8:15 pm

old CDs

It’s hard to throw things away that for so many years I carefully saved as important. You never know when you’ll need to reinstall iPhoto 1.0.

April 1, 2014


Filed under: Miscellaneous — By @ 9:39 pm

Today was a pretty good April Fools’ Day.

This morning, I received an email from my film professor who I had played a joke on nine years ago when I told him that I was quitting the film program to focus on pre-law. I haven’t spoken to him since graduation, and I don’t think we’ve even emailed, but today his one-line note was simply “I never forget.” That made me feel pretty good. I still have the voicemail that he left in 2005, and I don’t believe I’ve tried to play an April Fools’ Day joke on anyone since.

Tonight, my team got me. Someone from our team in Dublin is visiting, so we had decided that we were going to go out for dinner. As the workday ended, I asked where we were going. Knowing that I’m very particular (and some would say peculiar) about food, Eric told me that we’d be eating at a new Caribbean place that he had just discovered. I instantly got nervous. Trying new food is a scary thing for me. Of course the first thing that I wanted to know was if I would be able to find something to eat. I asked to see a menu. Eric informed me that the new location didn’t have a menu online yet, but the Palo Alto location did, and sent me a link. I started looking, trying to figure out what I would eat. I also asked why anyone would ever go to a restaurant that didn’t have its menu online. Why would one take that risk? I was told to check out Di Big Tings. Research indicated that there were few menu options that didn’t involve coconut, beans, or meat on bones—things that would cause me to avoid a dish. I looked at a bunch of photos of dishes and settled on Chicken Shrimp Pelau as a candidate for my dinner. When it was time to leave, I admitted to everyone, “I’m so nervous right now.” Eric offered to beam me the location of the restaurant, where we would all meet. I looked at the map, and started criticizing him for not linking directly to a place marker, and asked if the restaurant was even on Google Maps. He told me that they weren’t on Maps yet. This happens with new places, and I often add new restaurants to Google Maps via Map Maker. Before we left, I decided that we needed to add the restaurant to Google Maps. I fired up Map Maker, and asked where the restaurant was located. When Eric showed me on the map, I was very familiar with the location. It was right next to Sushi Tomi, one of my favorite places to get sushi. I thought it was strange that I hadn’t noticed the new restaurant there, as I had walked down that street just last night after eating at Sushi Tomi, but I could have easily ignored that building. Eric started to hesitate, and I got the sense that he might not know exactly where the restaurant was located. Not wanting to provide imprecise location data, I announced that I would add the restaurant to Maps after we ate. As we started to leave, and I forget exactly how this came up (maybe in the context of directions for our visitor), I mentioned that I had eaten at Sushi Tomi last night. Eric looked shocked and disappointed. I panicked, thinking that he had somehow expected to have been invited the night before, even though it was an impromptu dinner with the visitor after he asked for a recommendation of a sushi place after work. But then Eric told me that the joke was on me: the plan was to get me to the building next to Sushi Tomi, where there was no Caribbean restaurant that I needed to be worried about trying new food at, and then surprise me with a sushi dinner. I had no idea and was super-impressed. They really got me good, even down to how to pick a cuisine that was right in that zone where it was different enough to make me scared, but not scared so badly that I’d veto the option. Well-played. In the end, we decided that there’s nothing wrong with getting sushi two nights in a row, and headed to Sushi Tomi.

There were a lot of other good jokes on the Internet today that I’m about to catch up on, but here’s one that I did get to see: Google Translate on mobile Chrome translates English to Emoji.

screenshot of this blog with some words replaced by pictures

Update at 12:40 AM on April 2: And my favorite surprise of the day… there’s an update on HomestarRunner.com, complete with a Webvan reference. I still make H*R references at work, and fewer and fewer people are able to understand me. Now, maybe things will change for the better. Props to the HR Wiki folks for keeping that going too.

February 28, 2014

I’m on the TV!

Filed under: Geek — By @ 7:00 am

I’m famous! I looked up at my TV one day a few weeks ago and was thrilled to see one of my photos being displayed on the Chromecast Home Screen.

Brandon took a picture of it on his TV:
TV showing a plasma ball image on the Chromecast Home Screen

I took the photo in 2006 when playing around with a plasma ball and bulb exposures.

A few of my photos are also featured on Google’s internal video conferencing system, but I think it’s even cooler to have something that can get me in living rooms across the country. I’m not sure if Chromebox for Meetings has any of my photos, so if you happen to spot one there, let me know!

By the way, Brandon’s photography skills don’t end at taking pictures of his TV. I’ve seen several of his photographs appear on Chromecast, including this one from our trip to Telluride. I recommend following him on Google+ if you like landscape photography.

January 4, 2014

High latency conversation

Filed under: Quote — By @ 7:42 pm

Bill and I don’t talk much now that we’re not in the same apartment or even the same city, but in December, we had a lot to talk about. Here’s an unedited exchange of text messages; our only communication during this period:

Me: Happy birthday hahaha you are so old! (Dec. 15, 13 12:39 PM)
Me: I’m still in my 20s (Dec. 15, 13 12:39 PM)
Bill: Not any more. Happy birthday. (Dec. 31, 13 11:40 AM)

December 8, 2013

Air Travel tips

Filed under: Advice — By @ 6:15 pm

Living on the opposite coast of my family, I fly fairly often—about one trip per month on average. Sometimes travel can be a little annoying, but for the most part, I’ve found that the actual experience is way better than its reputation would lead one to believe. As Louis C.K. put it: “Everything is amazing right now, and nobody’s happy.” And if you’re not convinced, remember that it’s at least better than it used to be.

Of course there are many factors in my favor when I travel: I generally fly alone, so when I book I only have to find one good seat. I don’t have kids, so there’s no dealing with that. And, I’m usually on cross-country flights between major cities, so I’m on direct flights on bigger and nicer aircraft. But in addition to the luck I’ve described, I’ve learned a few other things over time to help make the flying experience a little nicer. I wrote most of the following as an email, but since the advice may be useful to others, I’m pasting it into a blog post.

Global Entry and TSA PreCheck

Global Entry lets you skip the line when re-entering the United States. Sign up for this well ahead of your trip since you’ll need to schedule an “interview” to confirm your identity in person ahead of your trip. The signup form is long, but it’s worth it. Some American Express cards will give you credit for the registration fee, so pay with an AMEX if you have it.

Along with getting to bypass the lines at immigration, you’ll also get a “Known Traveler Number,” also known as a PASS ID. You can use this number to get TSA PreCheck on any airline that supports it. TSA PreCheck generally has shorter lines, and it moves a lot faster since you walk through a metal detector, you don’t have to take off your shoes, and you don’t have to take anything (like laptops) out of your bag. Just look for the field that says “Known Traveler Number” when buying your tickets. I enter it every time, even if I should already get PreCheck through the airline’s frequent flier program, just to be safe.

I wrote more about Global Entry and PreCheck last year.

Seat Guru

I’m usually flying the same planes, so I know where my favorite seats are. But whenever I’m booking a flight on an unfamiliar plane, I try to remember to consult Seat Guru. It provides information about the seats on the type of plane you’re on, including legroom, recline, and storage space.

Premium Economy

United calls it Economy Plus. US Airways calls them “Preferred” seats. Virgin America calls it Main Cabin Select. In every case, I’ve found them to be worth the extra money to get a more comfortable ride without upgrading to first class. The prices are often quite high at the time of booking, but you have a couple of other options. You can take your chances and try to get an upgrade when you check in (still for a fee), or if you have status on the airline, make sure you’re signed in to your account when booking, and you may see the good seats available for no extra charge.

One-way flights

You often don’t save any money when booking round-trip domestic flights, so try looking at your outgoing and return flight options individually, since that will give you more options for flight times, airlines, and even airports. I’ve often flown out on one airline and back on another. I’ve even switched up the airports, so I might fly into EWR and out of PHL.

My airline of choice: Virgin America

I fly them whenever possible. It’s a much more comfortable experience. All of their flights have WiFi, and they have two power outlets for every three seats. In Main Cabin Select you get extra legroom plus free food, drinks, and movies. One thing that’s been hard to get used to with them is that the status-based upgrades don’t flow nearly as freely as I’m used to on US Airways, but it also means that upgrades are almost always available if you check in early enough. You can upgrade to Main Cabin Select 24 hours prior to departure or first class six hours prior to departure. You can upgrade to first class earlier if you have status.

Funneling miles

The short version of this is: For each alliance that you fly, choose one airline as your “main” airline and use that frequent flier number on all airlines in that alliance.

The long version: Most airlines are part of an alliance, which means that you can earn miles (which count towards frequent flier status), on any member airline. Normally, if you fly 10,000 miles one year on United, and 15,000 miles on US Airways that same year, you wouldn’t reach “Silver” status on either airline. But, if you used your US Airways frequent flier number when booking on US Airways, and also used your US Airways number when booking on United, then you’d reach Silver status on US Airways. That means that you’ll get free upgrades and other goodies on US Airways, and you’ll have “Star Silver” status on all Star Alliance airlines (assuming you book with your US Airways number), which can mean things like priority boarding and free checked bags, even if you have no status on that particular airline. This example won’t be valid forever; both United and US Airways are currently members of the Star Alliance, but US Airways is going to leave with the American merger.

More tips

I start most of my flight searches on Google Flight Search, and not just because I work there. It doesn’t have as many options as some other flight search providers, but it’s super-fast. The results update instantaneously as you change your search.

All airlines have different policies, so check their websites to figure out all of your options for upgrades, etc.

If you’re interested in the best way to get award travel using credit cards, I’m not the expert on that, but there are plenty of guides out there where people have done the math. I am starting to funnel my purchases to a card that earns status-qualifying miles after a certain threshold.

I have a ton of other ground transportation tips, especially in the San Francisco Bay Area, but I haven’t yet gathered all of those into a single post.

September 28, 2013


Filed under: Miscellaneous — By @ 11:20 pm

Last weekend, I went to Austin for the first time. Of course, I was unable to resist trying out yet another travel-related startup in the process. I’ve already got a good thing going on my drive to and from SFO with DriveNow, I breeze through security with TSA Precheck (While I participate in the program, I don’t totally agree with it. For one thing, I’ve been classified as not so dangerous that I need a full body scan or pat-down, but still shady enough that I should still be checked for metal.), and I comfortably fly Virgin America (or at least get upgraded on a legacy carrier) when possible. I thought that I had my rental car experience figured out as well by signing up for Avis Preferred (as well as the rewards programs for a few others), which in most locations allows you to have a more efficient rental experience. It turns out, there’s an even better way: Silvercar.

Silvercar is a car rental company. There are a few things that make it a little different than the average car rental company, and most of their advantages center around simplicity.

The only car that you can get with Silvercar is an Audi A4. You don’t even pick the color—they’re all silver. I like this, because I never know what I’m going to get with the other car rental companies. I usually get “upgraded” to a random SUV. The A4 is a comfortable, good-looking car. I had fun driving it.

You can reserve a car on their website or via their app. I used the website. It’s quick and easy, and there aren’t 20 screens of upselling.

When we landed in Austin, I opened up the app, and tapped a button which loaded up a text message containing my reservation number to send to Silvercar. A few minutes after texting them, they called me and told me where to wait outside. They showed up a few minutes later in a silver A4, checked my license and credit card (only done for first-time drivers) and drove us to the off-airport rental facility. There, while one employee transferred our luggage into the rental car, the other showed us how everything worked. Scanning a QR code with the app unlocked the doors. From there, he showed us an overview of the computer system, such as how to navigate, use the radio, and pair my phone. It is nice to have Bluetooth, but for whatever reason, Silvercar seems to be really excited about it. At some locations, you don’t even have to go through all of that; you can just walk right up to your car, scan, and go. In any case, I was just happy that I didn’t have to wait in line at a counter or wait for a bus.

When we picked the car up, they asked us to give them a call when we were on our way back to the airport since we were returning on Sunday, which is a busy day. On Sunday, we called and let them know that we were on our way. I’m not sure how necessary that was. When we arrived, one of the employees hopped in the driver’s seat and drove us to the curbside drop-off area. We got out, he handed us our bags, and that was it. I received a receipt via email a few minutes later.

When I first looked into Silvercar, I thought that they had standard pricing, with a set weekday rate and weekend rate, as the rates were published prominently on their homepage. However, it looks like the prices do fluctuate like any other company. They could really win me over if they had a more stable rate (I was pretty annoyed to be hit with a ridiculous demand-based rate at our hotel, for example), but it’s not like you don’t get a quote before you make the reservation. Update on October 1, 2013: Silvercar sent me a note to clarify that they do have stable rates of $89 per day on weekdays (Monday – Thursday) and $59 per day on weekends (Friday – Sunday). If your reservation includes both weekdays and weekend days, they’ll display the average daily rate of your reservation.

They do still have a win with the fuel pricing, though. Rather than a bunch of confusing fuel options, you can either return the car full or not. If the tank isn’t full, they’ll top it off, charge you the local market rate for gas, plus a $5 fee. On my rental I used 3.6 gallons of gas, so I paid $13.93 ($3.59*3.6 + $5) and didn’t have to hunt around for a gas station on the way to the airport.

There are plenty of things that Silvercar doesn’t charge for at all, that tend to be add-ons with other rental companies. They don’t charge extra fees for electronic tolls; they’ll simply charge whatever the actual toll amount was. Even though everyone just navigates with their phones anyway, the car comes with an included navigation system. The car has free WiFi, but we didn’t use it. Though I didn’t try this, there’s no cost to add a driver to the reservation, and it’s super-easy. I had the opposite experience a year ago with Avis. When we went up to the counter to add the driver, the guy first informed us: “Well, you can, but it’s $13 extra per day.” Ok… we thought that was annoying, but had to do it since I wouldn’t be returning the car, and asked to add a driver. The agent warned: “You’ll have to fill out a form.” He then paused to see if, after we already agreed on the price, we would be okay with doing some paperwork. We then found out why he warned us. It took probably 10-15 long minutes to make that one change: filling out a paper form, having the agent do who-knows-what on an ancient computer, and finally receiving a new copy of the agreement printed with a dot-matrix printer. At least it wasn’t like the time that they refused to add someone as a driver on another reservation over the phone (which Silvercar is happy to do), affecting my family’s travel plans. This industry deserves to be disrupted.

The rough edges
Overall, using Silvercar was a great experience, and I only have a few pieces of feedback to improve it.

When I first tried to alert Silvercar that we had arrived, I tried to send the text message via Google Voice. Unfortunately, the app didn’t pass along the message content to Google Voice, so I had to do it via a standard text. It’d be nice if the app worked with Google Voice or didn’t rely on SMS at all.

When we were ready to return the car, I tapped the button on the app to navigate back to the rental car location using Google Maps. We were taken to an office park near the airport. The app needs to be updated with the correct address. We ended up using the built-in Audi navigation system to get to the right place. The Audi system definitely needs some work. The ordering of upcoming turns read from bottom to top (the next turn was at the bottom of the list), which made it confusing when preparing for the next turn. The distance units were incorrect, as it’d warn of turns coming up in 200 yards, that were actually only 200 feet away, adding to the confusion.

There has been an app update since I used it, and Silvercar’s support staff did say my feedback would go to the right department, so it’s possible that those bugs have already been fixed.

Finally, when we got out of the car at the curb and the employee helped us with our bags, there was that strange feeling that maybe I was supposed to tip (I didn’t), and I hate the ambiguity of that. If we weren’t supposed to tip, it’d be nice if Silvercar were upfront about it. And if a tip was expected, they should change that, either by including it in the standard rate or offering it as an option, like “If you give me a dollar, I’ll carry your bag for you.” You know, like any other transaction. Based on the fact that it’s a newer company and I’ve never had to tip in any other rental car situation, I’m assuming that it was just me being paranoid and that there was no expectation of a gratuity.

Would I use it again?
Yes, absolutely. Silvercar is way better than a standard rental car company. They’re only in a few cities right now, but if you’re lucky enough to be renting a car in Dallas, Austin, Houston, San Francisco, or Los Angeles, check out Silvercar.

Trying out startups when I travel continues to be fun. I even stumbled across another car-sharing service (that according to Wikipedia has actually been operating since 2008) while walking around Austin. Next up: BlackJet? I wish. On the non-travel front, I was hoping to write about how Prim has changed my life. I did try it out, and I got really used to not having to do laundry. Unfortunately, after a month and a half of using the service, one of the co-founders emailed me and let me know that the service was no longer available in my area “due to low user density.” Now, after experiencing life with Prim, it feels like doing laundry takes forever. Whenever I get a glimpse of how much better things can be, I wish the future would just hurry up and get here. Fortunately, now is pretty good too.

June 20, 2013

Lowbrow marketing from the US federal government

Filed under: Idiot Marketing — By @ 7:25 am

First, I have to say that I’m generally a fan of and am fascinated by the USPS (and other postal services around the world). The fact that I can write on a piece of paper, drop it in a box, and have full confidence that it will be delivered to the right place is kind of amazing.

That all being said, it makes me sad that these screenshots are from the website of an official agency of the United States federal government:

Lowbrow marketing page with words like 'exclusive coupons' and very large buttons for opting in, with only a small 'Skip this step' link that allows the user to continue to the confirmation page for a change of address.Lowbrow marketing page with a timer indicating that the customer only has a few minutes to redeem an offer to have catalogs sent to their address or to receive coupons.

I understand that the postal service may not like what it’s doing, and is desperate for revenue. So here’s a challenge: How would you change the system so that the postal service had an incentive to reduce junk mail?

And a question for anyone outside of the US: Do you get junk/unsolicited/spam mail in your country? How many pieces do you receive per day or week? Is there a way to opt out of it?

June 7, 2013


Filed under: California,Geek — By @ 5:36 pm

In this episode of my quest to optimize my SFO transportation, I rented a car. But not just any car, I rented a BMW. And not just any BMW. I rented an electric BMW. That’s right, I got to drive an electric BMW to and from the airport. And it cost me less than it would have to drive and park my own car in long term parking.

DriveNow is a service from BMW, currently available in a few major cities in Germany as well as San Francisco in the US. You can rent a car, on-demand, and pay by the minute. And, you can drop it off at any DriveNow station. Since you pay only for the time, there’s no penalty for doing a one-way rental. Currently, it’s a $12 minimum charge for the first 30 minutes, 32¢/minute after that (13¢/minute for parking), and through June, the total charge is capped at $30 per 24 hours.

Parking at SFO’s long-term lot is $18 per day. So even if I’m only gone for a weekend, it’s still a better deal for me to rent a car each way, as I’m about 30 minutes from the airport.

So, how is it in practice? It’s mostly awesome, but there are a few kinks. Here are some notes from my experience so you can see what it’s like.

First, I unplugged the car, and then swiped my DriveNow card to unlock the doors. There was no use of a key at any point.

LCD screen with text: Hello, Mr. Wyszomierski, Welcome to DriveNow in vehicle Thomas.

I was then prompted to enter a PIN to make sure that it was really me using my card. After entering my PIN and confirming that the car is clean and undamaged, I tapped on “Start reservation” and the car was ready to go. It’s a push-button start of course, and the car didn’t make any sound when it was turned on. The only indication that something had happened was the energy gauge flipping up to “Ready.” From there, it was just a matter of putting the car into gear and pressing on the accelerator.

The DriveNow location at SFO is at SkyPark, one of the off-airport parking facilities. It’s about the same distance from the airport as the official long-term parking lot. It wasn’t difficult to find, though of course I used Google Maps. Once there, an attendant directed me to park the car, end my reservation, and hop on the shuttle.

One of the nice things about SkyPark is that the shuttles run on-demand, so there’s not a lot of waiting. When I returned, I called SkyPark to let them know which terminal I was waiting at and the name of the car that I had rented via the DriveNow app just seconds before. A shuttle quickly arrived and took me back to SkyPark, where an attendant retrieved the car for me. When I returned the car to a parking lot in the South Bay, I ended my reservation and swiped my card to lock the doors. I then used my card, which doubles as a ChargePoint card, to release the charging cable at the station and start charging the car for the next customer. It’s a free charge at the DriveNow locations of course, but you can also access the paid stations when you’re out and about if you set up your ChargePoint account to allow that.

Overall, DriveNow provided a great experience and I’m planning on using it for all of my future SFO-based travels.

So what’s it like to drive? The car is great. It’s a BMW. It’s comfortable and it handles well. It has satellite radio. As an electric vehicle, the ActiveE makes the coolest sounds, too. When I test-drove a prototype a year ago, the BMW intern who rode along with me pointed out that because of the way the regenerative braking works, you can learn how to drive without tapping the brake pedal. As you lift your foot from the accelerator, the generator acts as a brake, and yes, the brake lights will engage so the cars behind you aren’t surprised. Of course it’s still recommended to use the brake pedal when stopped at crosswalks, etc. My camera was mounted in such a way that the mic really doesn’t pick up will, so you can probably find better recordings elsewhere, but for the record, here’s what the regenerative braking and electric acceleration sounds like:

One of the advantages of driving a fully electric car is that you can drive in the carpool lane. Note the “Access OK” decal below:

Rear of BMW ActiveE with clean air vehicle sticker

This is pretty useful during rush hour. One weeknight when I was meeting friends for dinner in San Francisco, I rented a DriveNow car for the evening so I could use the HOV lane up to the BART station, where I parked like any other traveler:

Parked DriveNow ActiveE in a parking garage

I could have driven all the way to the city, but I don’t like parking there. Instead, I simply put the reservation into “park” mode, and retrieved the car a few hours later. Since there’s a cap on how much I could be charged for 24 hours, I was only charged $32.55 ($30 plus 8.5% tax) for the whole evening.

On a trip back from the airport, my reservation was started at 9:48 PM and ended at 10:32, as I stopped at my office for a few minutes to feed ALF. I got charged for 41 minutes of driving and 3 minutes of parking, for a grand total of $17.26 including tax, less than a day of parking, and significantly less than a cab ride.

There are a couple of things you should know about the car, though. The trunk space is limited. I put my carry-on bag in there, and there wasn’t much room for anything else.

Carryon luggage in an ActiveE car trunk

Multiple passengers with luggage could present a challenge, just as with any small car.

The range is also limited. A Tesla Model S’s range is rated at over 200 miles from the EPA, but the ActiveE is rated at 94 miles. It’s more than adequate for getting to the airport, and I’ve done a round trip from Mountain View to Millbrae and back with no problem, but I couldn’t help myself from constantly checking the charge level while driving.

While important to know, the limitations I noted above don’t affect my use case. As with FlightCar, I did find that there are some rough edges that need to be worked out in the DriveNow service:

  • The website is slow.
  • I ran into some errors while trying to fill out my profile and had to call them to get my information filled out completely. I would have preferred a friendlier person to talk to.
  • There’s a bug with some cars where the current charge level is incorrectly reported in the mobile app. The first time I tried renting a car, the app indicated that the car’s battery was 100% charged, but it was actually at less than 20% when I got in. was told that they’d would reverse the $13.02 charge for the reservation (I never moved the car; I just turned it on), but so far that hasn’t happened.
  • I failed to end my reservation when dropping off the car at SkyPark. I tapped on “End reservation,” but got an error because I had not yet turned off the car. When I tried again, I was unable to get back to the screen with the option to end the reservation, so I assumed that the process had finished, got out of the car, and scanned my card to lock the doors. I later got a text message indicating that my reservation was still active. This may have been user error, but it still confused someone who works with computers all day. I haven’t bothered to try getting a partial refund on that. I’ll have to write off the extra charges as the cost of research for a blog post.
  • SkyPark seems like a pretty good service, but it was another one of those unpleasant things in America where the expectation of tipping was unclear. I never have cash, I dislike ambiguous situations, and I’m perfectly happy to pay more to avoid them.
  • SkyPark is a valet service, so someone else swipes your card, enters your PIN, reports damage, rates the cleanliness, and starts your reservation. There was nothing wrong with the car, but at the other locations I’ve liked being able to check out the vehicle myself before renting it, especially if there are others available in the same area.

Some teething pains are always expected with a new service, and I’m still eagerly awaiting my next reservation!

Update on June 18, 2013:

I met a couple of members of the DriveNow team when doing my last pickup. They were updating the software on the cars, and super-helpful! One of them even showed me how all of the DriveNow stations are saved in the navigation system, and set it up to direct me to SkyPark. He also gave me a couple of other tips: You don’t need to reserve a car in advance with the app. If you see an available car, just tap your card and the doors will unlock. And when we both ended up at SkyPark at the same time, he was there as I ended my reservation and showed me that a green light (indicating that the car is available), confirms that my reservation has successfully ended. I didn’t have any unintended charges this time… it was $14.76 going up to the airport and $13.02 on the way back!

My SkyPark experience was a bit different than the first time. Unlike before, the valet retrieved the car with the SkyPark card instead of taking mine and asking for my PIN, so I was the one who started the reservation this time. There was some confusion when I got on the bus and they were unable to find the exact car that I reserved, but it wasn’t really an issue as I just told the valet to grab any of them.

June 6, 2013

The Internship

Filed under: California,Geek — By @ 9:57 pm

I’m currently hosting my first Google intern. Coincidentally, there’s a new movie currently in theaters about Google interns. I saw the film last Saturday with another Googler at a theater across the street from Google. I even spotted a Google VP in the audience, watching the movie about Google with the author of the book about—you guessed it—Google.

While I knew that The Internship isn’t a documentary (unlike this), my main curiosity going into the movie was how Google (and Googlers!) would be portrayed. Overall, movie Google looks a lot like real Google. You could probably take pictures of most of the sets, show them to real-world Googlers, and easily have them believe that the pictures were from a real office that they hadn’t visited yet. Some of the movie was actually shot at Google. If you want to know what was shot where, here’s a tip: If you see brick buildings, they’re not in California.

I’m tempted go into great detail about the plot and characters in terms of what is realistic vs. what is only in the movie, but as I said before, it’s not a documentary, so I’ll skip that and keep my review brief: I enjoyed the movie. I laughed out loud a few times, and I couldn’t help associating some of the Googler characters with Googlers I know. My favorite part was a scene with Billy and “Headphones.” It’s a fun movie, and I assume that Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson had fun making it. The most surprising part for me was that of the scenes really resonated with me. Okay, maybe two scenes, but I’ll just talk about one. I don’t want to give too much away, but it involved trying to teach a small business owner the value and opportunity of the Internet. As someone who has had the pleasure of helping many businesses get online, I can attest that it’s an extremely challenging and rewarding experience.

As I mentioned earlier, some of the film was shot at the Googleplex in Mountain View, California. The fun part about these shots is that in addition to featuring a real Google campus, they show real Googlers! During shooting, I got to spend a day on the set as an extra, and it was a fun experience. One of the first tasks was to be reviewed by someone in the wardrobe department. She loved my shoes, but said that I looked “too hip,” which is totally understandable. She asked me to tuck in my shirt, and then gave me a belt to “dorkify” me. I was also issued a fake Google badge. The name on mine was “Shaady Kamal.” Other than those adjustments to my appearance, I pretty much played myself. I wore my normal work clothes (jeans, a colorful shirt, and Google-colored shoes), and even had my real work backpack and laptops with me. It wasn’t hard to get into character; in all of my scenes I was working on my laptop, where I was literally just doing work at work. The only difference is that occasionally a couple of celebrities would walk by. Actually, that’s not different than real work. But this time there was a camera crew. Hmm, that’s not different either. I only “acted” in in a few shots, and each time was given a simple direction, such as to sit and work on a laptop or talk to some people for a little bit and then walk away. While it was easy to pretend to be me, I will still proudly note that I nailed it. In one shot, when I turned around and started walking right on cue, one of the crew members hiding in the bushes whispered to me, “Good job.” The funny part about shooting that scene was that I was supposed to walk away from a group of people as if leaving for a meeting. We were far enough from the action that we could talk, so we had a real-life conversation. My cue was when Vince and Owen hit a certain mark, and not any particular point in our conversation, so I kept having to walk away abruptly and randomly in the middle of the conversation. I almost felt rude, but that’s how Shaady rolls. The set was much more relaxed than I expected, and I think the crew was enjoying the location. I overheard the “good job” guy say on the phone, “This is the best week of work in my life. Yeah, I’m shooting a movie up at Google.”

As for a Wysz cameo? When I saw it in the theater, I didn’t see myself in the movie. They completely cut one of the scenes I was in. There are a couple of shots that I’m potentially in, but I think they each ended before the camera got to me. I’d need to step through them frame-by-frame to be sure, and you can bet that I’ll do that as well as check for deleted scenes when the movie comes out on video. I did spot Mike Leotta and Sergey Brin in one of the scenes.

June 1, 2013

T-Mobile won’t take my money

Filed under: Geek — By @ 4:31 pm

tl;dr: T-Mobile’s $30/month plan beats a $70/month plan by AT&T (depending on where you need service), but T-Mobile still operates like a big phone company.

I’m pretty disloyal when it comes to phone companies; I recently was a customer of all four major US carriers in three years. It’s pretty easy to move around with an unlocked phone and Google Voice, since I’m not tied to a contract or even a phone number. I honestly have never memorized my current phone number provided by AT&T, and I’ve had it for six months.

Last month, this post by Danny Sullivan caught my eye. It mentioned a T-Mobile plan that would get me 5GB of data, unlimited texts, and 100 minutes for $30/month. I hardly ever use my phone for voice calls, so this sounded great to me. I could take or leave the texts since I use Google Voice, but it makes sense for T-Mobile to include them since it costs them virtually nothing to transmit. Even though I know that T-Mobile’s coverage can be pretty lousy in some places that I travel to, I thought it could be worth giving them another chance after a few years of network upgrades, and it wouldn’t be hard to move back to AT&T if I needed to. I got distracted, though, and forgot about it.

Today, Danny had an article on CNET describing the plan. This time, I decided to go for it.

Store: Go online.

I didn’t want to wait for a SIM card to arrive in the mail, so I walked into a T-Mobile store and announced my intentions. The clerk knew exactly the plan I was talking about, and then politely informed me that this plan was not available in stores. I had to go to the website to sign up. That’s totally understandable. Physical stores have limited inventory, so it doesn’t make sense to send all of the billing plans to all locations. Yep, it makes perfect sense. Completely unrelated to that last thought, I wish there were a better way to convey sarcasm in text.

Website: Try chatting.

I found the place to order a microSIM and entered my billing information. I got this error with multiple credit cards: Sorry – we’re having some trouble with the debit/credit card you provided. Please check to make sure you’ve correctly filled in all the required fields. I searched for that error and apparently I’m not the only one to get it.

Chat support: Try calling

On the site, a popup appeared offering chat assistance. I took them up on their offer and explained the situation. The representative simply had me re-check all of my information again. I did, and when it failed again, she asked me to call 611 or the 1-800 customer service number, apparently not understanding that I was not already a T-Mobile customer.

Phone sales: Go to the store

I called the sales number. The representative informed me that I called at an excellent time, because they’re offering microSIM cards for only 99¢. Great. I provided my billing information, and she has trouble processing the order. Like the chat representative, her first reaction is to re-verify all of the information, which she has entered correctly. She then put me on hold to check with the order processing department. When she got back, her tone was much different than it was before, when she was polite and making small talk about my name. She informed me that the order would need to be processed in a store for additional “verification.” I told her that I had already gone to a store, and that I was told I needed to go online. She said, and note that this is in quotes, that “they’re full of it” and there was no reason the store couldn’t help me. I politely explained that perhaps the clerk in the store had meant that I couldn’t purchase the plan in-store, but maybe they’d give me a SIM card. At the end of the 18-minute call, before I hung up I could hear her breathe a disappointed growl into the phone.

Store: Go to Walmart

I ventured out again and went to a different T-Mobile store. I asked for a microSIM and explained that I’d then get the $30 plan online. Two staff members told me that I couldn’t do that; if I got a SIM card in the store it would cost me $20 (remember, it was 99¢ over the phone), and they would need to activate it in-store, so I wouldn’t be able to get the plan I wanted anyway. I briefly recounted everything that had happened before this. They seemed frustrated (not with me, but with T-Mobile), and said that they’re not given any support with these online-only plans. One of them told me that he had recently helped a friend buy the plan through Walmart’s site, and said that he’s heard it’s easier to use than T-Mobile’s anyway.

Walmart: How may we confuse you?

I first tried going to walmart.com on my phone. When I searched for [t-mobile] on their mobile site, I was told, “We’re sorry, but we’re having system issues. Please try again.” I went to their desktop site on my laptop and found the $30 plan, but it was listed as an “e-delivery” item, so I wasn’t sure if I was going to get a SIM card. Since there was still a pretty good chance that something would go wrong in the billing process eventually, I aborted my mission.

If they can’t even take my money, how can I expect good service?

T-Mobile has been trying to brand themselves as the hip and rebellious “UnCarrier,” trying to set themselves apart as a sensible alternative to the traditional contract-laden US mobile providers that we all love to hate. But when they have ridiculous policies like only offering some plans on their website, it’s hard to see them as being any different.

The fact that I was unable to give them my money after several attempts is another bad sign for their ability to provide good service. I’m not terribly upset about initially being declined. While I still don’t know exactly what happened, I’m guessing that somewhere along the way I triggered a fraud flag. Sure, it’s a false positive, as I always pay my bills in full whenever they’re due, but it happens. What really frustrated me is that none of the people I spoke to were empowered to figure out what was going on and fix it.

If anyone has a recommendation for a good AT&T MVNO with a sensible data plan, let me know in the comments.

Update on June 6, 2013
I decided to give it another try today. I’m paying nearly $70/month for AT&T for only 3GB of data, and text messages cost extra. I went into a physical Walmart store and picked up a T-Mobile “starter kit” that came with a microSIM and $30 of service. I paid with cash, so I think I now have what qualifies as a burner phone. Take that, NSA. ;)

Before I activated my T-Mobile number, I called AT&T to see if they would try to retain me as a customer. When I mentioned that I was canceling to take advantage of the T-Mobile plan, the representative made no effort to retain me as a customer. Just as Verizon tried when I canceled my account with them, the AT&T agent told me that I would be charged an early termination fee because I had upgraded my phone recently. After I explained that no, I was not under contract and that I always bring my own phone, we found out that something got messed up (as it did with Verizon) when a discount code was applied to my account. She waived the fee and canceled the account.

I activated the T-Mobile line by dialing *611 after inserting the SIM, and it was a relatively easy process. I got kicked out of the automated system when I was unable to find a phone number in my city of choice. I don’t know why they don’t have an option for “I don’t care what city my phone number is in. It’s 2013. Just assign me any US number.” At one point the friendly agent asked for the number that would add credit to my account, saying that I would have scratched a card to reveal it. I could find no such card, and was worried that I had wasted my money. Fortunately he skipped over that step, and we later found out that the activation code came with the credit. My phone was then activated, and had a working Internet connection within a few minutes.

They really didn’t want me as a customer last weekend. I now feel like I snuck into a store with a mask on, paid for my items, and left without a problem.

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©2013 Michael Wyszomierski