A Musical Séance

November 21st, 2008

My musical bucket list just got one shorter:

3. Have Kristin Hersh, chief architect of Throwing Muses, the greatest alternative rock band on earth, perform Pearl in my living room.

2. Have lunch with Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters to chat about his views on the 60s and socialism.

1. Play a round of miniature golf with any member of The Monkees, though preferably Peter Tork.

That’s right, we can finally check off #3:

Our home (which Kris affectionately calls Cheddarwood for a rather convoluted set of reasons) was host to one of Kristin’s Shady Circle house concerts this week. On Saturday, Nov 15,  Kristin played in front of our living room’s fireplace to about 35 folks. The audience included my writing buddy Rick (who flew in from Michigan for the occasion), friend of the family Christine, and a varied slew of people from work.

shady circle (11)Also among the audience was another special treat – Bernard Georges, bassist extraordinaire from Throwing Muses, who hung around in a non-musical way that reminded me of Tom Petty’s nonchalant appearance on the old It’s Garry Shandling’s Show. (That’s Bodhi, decked out in full cat-hunting gear, with Kristin and Bernard.) For more photos of the evening, check out my Flickr page.

Back in the 90s, I interviewed Kristin and Billy for my book How to Do Everything with MP3s and Digital Music. And then a few years later, they graciously donated a few songs from Murder, Misery, and then Goodnight to my interactive children’s book, The Wild Cookie. And perhaps most surprising, Billy can pick me out of a crowd from 100 yards. Surely, he has a photographic memory for faces. It’s uncanny.

Anyway, I doubt the evening could have gone any better. It was a treat from start to finish. Billy had told me the week before the show that Kristin wanted the show to be more like a book club than a rock show; a musical séance in which everyone hung around and chatted and music would spontaneously occur. And that’s kind of what we got. Billy, Kristin, and Bernard were predictably gracious and friendly and approachable, and everyone mixed together in a pretty natural way. When Kristin started playing, it was intimate and warm and, well, it almost felt like we were all family gathered around the hearth for some music. How cool is that?

The set list was an almost perfect mix of Appalachian folk songs and Kristin’s own material. And I got the whole thing on video. Woo hoo! Here’s the set list:

  1. Jesus Called Me
  2. Down in the Willow Garden
  3. City of the Dead
  4. One Train
  5. Banks of the Ohio
  6. Teeth
  7. Dusty Road
  8. Little House
  9. Moan
  10. If
  11. Stone in this Pond
  12. Sno Cat
  13. Lemon Tree
  14. Willie Moore
  15. The Cuckoo
  16. Tuesday Night
  17. Pearl

And Pearl was one of the real, err, gems, of the evening – at least for me. One of my favorite songs of all time, I love both the original Muses version and Kristin’s acoustic interpretation. Billy thought he had discussed a request with me to close the show, but in reality we had never talked about it. So when the last song rolled around, Billy and Kristin assumed I wanted Your Ghost. And while that would have been fine, I asked for Pearl instead. The next three minutes? Watching Kristin trying to remember the chords, with various suggestions flying in from Billy and Bernard. Now that was fun. Ahhh, thank you, Kristin. 

Oh, and the next day, a friend of mine sent me a note that Kristin twittered about us:


Another Dog-Dangling Saturday Afternoon

October 25th, 2008

I’m not sure why, but our dogs have never felt they should be bounded by human conventions like yards and fences. So a few years ago, we added an invisible fence to keep the dogs back from the actual fence, and that generally works pretty well.

There are some caveats, though. Our late Husky, Tumanna, tested the perimeter like a canine velociraptor, constantly pinging her collar to get a sense of when the batteries were dying. That way she’d know the fence was “down” before her human counterparts, and she could dash off for a neighborhood jaunt before we could refresh her collar.

These days, we have a different problem. Wash, who was recently voted the most adorable doggie of all time, has decided that the somewhat bulbous electric fence collars are awesome chew toys. So while Trance sits nonchalantly in the middle of the yard, Wash stands nearby, grinding away on the collar. He’s completely destroyed more than one of these $75 gadgets this way.

After the first time Wash tried this—and popped the battery out in the process, I thought that encasing the collar in duct tape might help protect it. Well, not exactly. That was like dousing it in kitten sauce. He didn’t stop until you could see what looks like a Heathkit Crystal Radio Kit inside the ruptured shell.


This is what the collar looked like before Wash decided it was yummy.



And this is what the duct-tape encased collar looked like after we rescued it from Wash’s teeth.


The current collar is wound in electrical tape. Maybe that’s less delicious than duct tape. All I know is that cats are not this troublesome.

Editors: Money Well Spent

September 7th, 2008

Last weekend we found ourselves in Spokane, where we partook of a slice of Americana: a fast food restaurant Which I’d previously never heard of, Zip’s. On my Zip’s beverage cup, I discovered they were apparently proud of something. But what?

cup Since 53… feet? What does that even mean? Did they intend to say that the establishment has been around since 1953? You know, “Since ‘53?” According to Wikipedia, yes… that would be what they were trying to say.

Good grief, guys, since 53’? Really? That’s an epic fail of the same magnitude as Spinal Tap’s Stonehenge. At least they could claim the rock and roll lifestyle as an excuse. That, and the fact that they’re fictional.

How many cups did you print?

I bet the $75 it would have cost you to get an editor to proofread this thing is looking like a better investment now. Though admittedly, any 5th grader probably could have done that for free.

Update: Incidentally, here is another case where $75 for a copy editor would have gone a long way.

All Aboard the Crazy Talk Express

August 3rd, 2008

On a recent flight, I was thumbing through a magazine and found an awesome advertisement (download the whole thing). Check out the headline:

soc-h Well, to be accurate, it’s not quite a headline. It’s more like a massive pull quote that just happens to be where the headline should be. And right next to it? A picture of some dude from 1963. Who is this amazing hasn’t-yet-heard-The Beatles-guy? Who knows? The article never once mentions his name. Did he write the full page advertisement? Good guess. But no, the ad (which, I should point out, is less an advertisement and more a full page of densely formatted text, sort of like a high school newspaper editorial) is attributed to this lady:


Okay, maybe Richard is a red herring. Perhaps I should stop worrying about him and concentrate more the message in the ad. You can get the gist of the ad just from the headline/pull quote/rambling introduction. You see, even though Mr. Wetherill was photographed on his way to his Bewitched-era public relations office*, apparently the author of the article had fully internalized John Lennon’s Imagine, because this is a full page plea to imagine all the people/living life in peace. Try this on for size:


Whatever this thing is, you might want to pull out your checkbook, because it holds the key to eradicating—once and for all–100% of the world’s poverty, crime, law enforcement, lawyers, drug dealers, and locksmiths! You heard me right… locksmiths! Sign. Me. Up.

Oooh, wait a minute. You totally had me, but as I continue reading, I start to get a whiff of crazy sauce.


Really? But you just put all the cops, lawyers, and locksmiths out of business a few paragraphs back. What are all those folks going to do for a living, in this Land of Full Employment and Unique Opportunities? Maybe picking beans on the The Leader’s farm. And I’m intrigued; how exactly do we get nonpolluting vehicles out of this deal? Is that like the free toaster that comes with my checking account? Maybe you’ve got a warehouse full of bliss-powered hoverbikes sitting in China, waiting for us to sign up?

But wait.


These people can freakin’ control the weather! That’s right; all the Hope you’ve been saving up for Barak Obama will first cause in wholesale bankruptcy of the global locksmith cartel (okay, I can sort of see that), but then also unexpectedly result in gentle, misty rains and 5 mph winds out of the NNW, every day, forever more.

Seattle will be totally awesome without all the rain.

*Maybe he’s an architect.

The Greatest 45 Minutes Ever

July 20th, 2008

imageYou don’t come here for entertainment advice, I get that. In reality, only my mom comes here at all, and even that’s usually only by accident when she’s actually trying to start Solitaire. But, damn. Joss Whedon’s Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog is a masterpiece that will go down in history as one of the greatest works of art ever produced.

Watching Neal Patrick Harris sing his way to world domination as Dr. Horrible will give your life meaning. By the time you see this, it will probably no longer be free, but it’ll be worth buying no matter what the price. (Though that price is just $3.99 for all three acts from iTunes.)

Update: You can now watch it on Hulu for free.

Creepiest Game Ever

July 9th, 2008

While visiting my parents in New Jersey last week, my sister took me and the kids out to dinner. Marin pointed out a game on the supposedly kid-friendly placemat which, in our collective opinion, is the creepiest thing, well, ever. I might never get a good night’s sleep again. Who designed this thing – Harlan Ellison?


All I wanted was some pizza. Instead, I will forever be haunted by the bone-chilling knowledge that a few strokes of my pencil can endow these that these faceless cornfield zombie children with the power to see me

Dell Watch: Apparently they hate their customers

April 20th, 2008

image The saga continues. It has now been 5 months since I ordered a Dell XPS 720, and the system suffers frequent unexplained bluescreen crashes. I’ve talked to uncountable tech support techs. I still don’t have a working computer.

Since the last time I described my problems with my order, Dell told me they could not exchange my system for a different model; they would only swap it out for the exact same specifications. So they sent me another XPS 720, which I decided to set up in the most scientific manner possible. I created an Excel spreadsheet and logged every single thing I did to the system. I noted every app I installed or removed; when I rebooted; when I changed the screen resolution; when I installed a peripheral. I discovered that my first bluescreen was a mere 5 hours after unboxing the system, and I had done nothing more complex than uninstalling crapware and installing Microsoft Office 2007. As time went on, I noted the bluescreen error code of every failure.

Want to see the details? You can grab my spreadsheet and read it for yourself.

After the first bluescreen, I called Dell XPS support, and the tech promised, after investigating my issue, that he’s escalate my problem to level 3 tech support and I’d get a call back within 48 hours. That call, of course, never came. I waited a few days and tried again. A second time, I called and let the level 1 tech tell me how easily he would solve my problem with some inane solution like running the hard disk error check utility, and eventually he agreed to upgrade me to level 3 support–with that mythical call back after 48 hours.

No call came. Lather, rinse, repeat–I’ve called Dell four times now, and four times I’ve been promised a call back with level 3 support, and each time I am glad I didn’t cancel any special dinner plans to wait by the phone, because I’ve never gotten any kind of call back.

So after 5 months, what am I to do? I am genuinely stumped. Dell apparently has no "customer advocacy" department designed to solve problems like mine. They won’t call back. They don’t give a shit. Keep in mind that I spent over $3000 on this system.

Houston, We Have a Problem (and Dell Should Be Ashamed of Themselves)

March 14th, 2008

reliability01 Fans of this blog — and by "fans," I mean my mom and about 10,000 spambots — might recall that I bought a Dell XPS 720 back at the end of October, 2007. It didn’t work, so Dell swapped it for a replacement, which I finally got in January, 2008, after enough frustration to run some sort of futuristic locomotive that is powered entirely by frustration.

Well, the replacement didn’t work, either. And while I haven’t been blogging about it, I’ve spent the last 2 months troubleshooting the problem, with occasional (and relatively indifferent) assistance from Dell.

First, a very short summary: The XPS 720 locked up frequently (and by that, I mean the mouse would freeze, all desktop activity would cease, and then, after about a minute of eerie quiet, the machine would bluescreen and then reboot).

This tended to happen a few times each day, and generally seemed tied to high hard drive utilization, such as when installing an app from DVD or trying to back up the hard drive. Not always, though. Occasionally, it would just lock up and bluescreen when the system seemed relatively idle.

That was how the first XPS 720 behaved. It had come with with Windows Vista Home Premium installed, but as soon as I got it out of the box, I immediately upgraded the machine to Windows Vista Ultimate. But as soon as I began installing apps from DVD, I noticed it locked up intermittently. I contacted Dell, who had me try some common troubleshooting, and though we didn’t find any specific problems, Dell decided to send me a new machine.

When the new machine eventually arrived, I decided to leave Home Premium in place in case the upgrade to Ultimate was somehow to blame. Again, I started installing apps and, pretty quickly, I noticed this new machine was locking up just like the first PC. It continued to lock up on a frequent basis, making it borderline unusable. Now bear in mind that I wasn’t installing buggy, insane stuff with names like CrazyPhishingSpooferPro — I was installing Office, Photoshop, and a handful of popular games, all ordinary stuff that ran just fine on my old Windows Vista computer. For backup, I use (and continue to highly recommend) Casper to clone my hard drive to a second internal drive. It was incapable of making it all the way through a backup; the machine would routinely lock up before the backup was complete, leaving me without a backup. Check out the Reliability Monitor snapshot above for a peek at how my machine handled itself through the month of January.

Each time it crashed, Windows Error Reporting would tell me:


So Windows was implying there was a problem somewhere in the storage subsystem. Maybe the hard drive itself, or the hard drive controller, or perhaps some filter driver or software interfering with the hard drive operation. That certainly seemed plausible, since the system most commonly hung when the hard drive was doing heavy duty.

So here are just some of the ways I tried troubleshooting:

  • Disabled most of the services that seemed suspect, including the Sidebar, TIVO Desktop, and Startup apps like iTunes and Photoshop gunk
  • Uninstalled anti-virus software
  • Uninstalled Capser even though Future Systems tech support assured me Casper was completely benign
  • Checked all the cable connections to make sure they were secure
  • Ran Dell’s diagnostics that tests memory, hardware, and the hard drive, including SMART tests
  • Underclocked the processor
  • Ran MEMTEST and swapped out the RAM for different memory
  • Swapped the hard drive, installed Windows from scratch

Since I had the exact same problem on two computers, logic dictated that it was a software glitch, not a hardware problem. But even that seemed increasingly unlikely as I winnowed down the possible causes. I was going out of my mind–I had seemed to rule out hardware problems like CPU, motherboard, memory, or hard drive, and I was running a machine that had little more than a handful of extremely common applications on it. And trust me, I was pretty exhaustive in my troubleshooting efforts.

Which is more than I can say for Dell, which exhibited only mild interest in assisting me. Each time I called tech support, they’d pretty much start over with doing asinine Tier 1 troublshooting tricks like deleting the files out of the Temp folder and disabling stuff in the Startup folder. More than once I had a tech delete the files from Temp and insist valiantly that the problem was completely solved, not unlike poor Lieutenant Gorman, who insisted "the area is secure, Ripley."

Once I had a tech tell me to run a suite of tests overnight. He said that if the tests didn’t complete in 6 hours, there was something radically wrong. I called back the next day to say the tests had been running for 12 hours and were only a tiny fraction complete. ‘Never mind,’ the new tech said, ‘that test doesn’t tell you anything, and it can run for days.’ His solution? Wipe the hard drive and start from scratch to see if the problem went away. I got that kind of conflicting support on a number of occasions.

When I asked to be upgraded to Level 2 support, I’d be promised call backs which never came. I took to emailing Dell’s Unresolved Customer Service Issues every single day, and sent them perhaps 15 requests for support. Dell’s web page promises a reply within 24 hours, but they never responded to me. Ever. Not even once. Ever Ever.

Finally, after 2 months of this, I called customer service and asked to return the system. That’s finally when something started happening; a tech support rep scheduled a house call to replace the motherboard, CPU, and memory. For a week after the motherboard transplant, I didn’t have any bluescreens. Which was a record for the XPS 720, which would bluescreen on average once every 36 hours, assuming I was not trying to install software or back up the hard drive (in which case it would bluescreen more or less on cue). But then the bluescreens came back with a vengence. I had 4 in one day, then one or two the next. And yesterday, the machine bluescreened so many times I lost count — more than 6 times. And that’s after disconnecting every external peripheral.

In inserted a fresh hanrd drive, popped in a Windows CD, and watched in amazement as the computer bluescreened during initial setup.

So what isthe problem? Beats me. I’m now trying to get in touch with customer service to negotiate a refund. While I won’t fault Dell for the actual hardware problem, they definitely deserve all the credit for the worst customer service experience in recorded history. Just some of their crimes:

  • Losing my order. Several times.
  • Taking weeks and weeks longer than promised to ship. Twice — both on the original order and the warranty replacement.
  • Lying to me about the order status on more than one occasion.
  • Promising to send, but then refusing to honor, a $200 gift card promotion because of a rule no ordinary customer should be expected to anticipate.
  • Repeatedly failing to contact me or follow up on tech support.
  • Failing to offer on-site support or hardware replacement until I asked for a refund.
  • Providing generally crappy tech support that was far, far inferior to what I was capable of doing on my own.

And just in case you’re curious, no, I’ve never gotten anything like an apology from Dell for this fiasco. The closest I’ve gotten to an apology, in fact, was when they took away the $200 gift card I was supposed to get with my order. Could have been worse, I suppose — they could have kicked a puppy in my name.

Listen Up

March 2nd, 2008

listen I have wanted to get back to the voice recognition in Windows Vista for a while. I had messed with it a year ago, and was impressed with how well it worked. But I don’t like having a wired microphone hanging off my head–it limits my mobility–so I abandoned it. This morning, on a lark, I tried it out again with a genuinely awful mic that was unable to reach a minimally acceptable recording level. I was pleasantly surprised that, despite the overall crappiness of the mic, I could use my voice to launch Word on the first try. Then I dictated a short test paragraph, and got, well, this:


The lunch with a time that I thought unlikely to live with how-to thing you can voice recognition. On the other hand, the 13th inning with a platoon of that that have the legal level made it very difficult for me to live each day.

I will very much enjoy going back and reading the text that my head that has interpreted plumbing. I suspect it may be a stream of consciousness local alternate reality led by all the words like they are converted into a different language, and in venture of a high and low pay and which not only that he realizes that have anything to do a lot of religion and fled.

I wonder how we’ve done?

There’s nothing from Halloween chillingly Korean about all of that.

Dell Watch: The Amazing Disappearing Gift Card

February 29th, 2008

Remember my $3000 paperweight with the cool Dell logo on it? The story isn’t over yet.

Indeed, I’ve never had such a highly concentrated collection of problems with a single purchase in my entire life. First of all, let me point out that after waiting for a replacement XPS 720 for a month, the new machine exhibits exactly the same bluescreen behavior as the first system. I’ve spent the last 2 months troubleshooting this system, and it still bluescreens on average once every 1.5 days. I’ll post more information about that soon — looks like I’ll be returning it to Dell for a refund, if they will let me. Jury is out on that right now.

But in the meantime, Dell has found another way to screw me!

When I ordered my original XPS 720, the Dell web site promised a $200 gift card with the system. To make a long story short, it never came. So about a month ago, I called Dell XPS customer service (which is awesome, because unlike standard Dell tech support, you always seem to get a North American call center rather than somewhere in New Delhi) and got a wonderfully polite, helpful person who promised to rectify the situation. She said that she would get my gift card sent out to me soon, but if I hadn’t received it by the time I wanted to place an order, I should just e-mail her and she’d credit my account $200:



Now, I wasn’t too enthused about relying on that offer of crediting my account, so I figured I could wait for the gift card to arrive before ordering my 500GB external USB hard drive.

A month passed, and no gift card. So I sent the nice lady an email to see what happened to it. I got this terse, gruff reply:


Wow. Dell customer service reps are no longer allowed to communicate with customers via email? That’s odd, because I still get this message in e-mails from Dell:


If they won’t reply to emails anymore, you’d think they’d stop asking you to, you know, reply to emails. But okay, fair enough — Dell is erecting even more walls preventing customers from getting a satisfying customer service experience, and they seem to take some perverse satisfaction in frustrating users in the process. Makes sense. Kids like to set ants on fire. It’s the same principle, I suppose.

So I called customer service, and was told that I didn’t qualify for the system because I ordered it over the phone. But I didn’t order it over the phone — I ordered it via the web!

Nope, apparently I didn’t. As soon as I talked to a customer service rep about the order several weeks later, it became a phone order. No one told me that by picking up the phone, I had suddenly forfeited $200. Lesson learned: Dell is evil incarnate. Now I know. And that external hard drive? Obviously, I’ll buy it elsewhere.