Migrating off Evernote

In late 2016, Evernote updated their privacy policy to explicitly grant their employees the right to view your personal information. In their own words:

And please note that you cannot opt out of employees looking at your content for other reasons stated in our Privacy Policy (under the section, “Does Evernote Share My Personal Information or Content?”).

This is unacceptable for most of the things you’d want to use a note taking application for, and I believe that makes it wholly unfit for any kind of business or private use. The good news is that there are viable alternatives now. These are the options I particularly like:

Continue reading “Migrating off Evernote”

Electronics Kit for my Kids

Cory Doctorow mentioned that Elenco makes a perfect copy of the Radio Shack 200-in-One electronics kit. I hadn’t read to the end of his article before I’d placed an order.

It’s not an exaggeration to say this kit pushed me into my career. I got the original Radio Shack version for Christmas one year when I was a kid, and on rainy days I’d work my way through the book of kid-friendly projects. Even though I usually didn’t understand how they worked, I got brave enough to test ideas like “I wonder if I could wire a light bulb into this section and have it still work?” and “what happens if I replace this with a smaller resistor?” I didn’t know what ohms or farads were, but got an intuitive feel for which parts did what. I lost any fear of experimenting and that willingness to try new things has served me well.

I don’t know if my kids will love this little kit as much as I did. I’m not going to push it – that’s for them to decide. However, a part of me hopes they have even half the fun I got from it.

We had a scary basement

When I was a kid, my parents had a horror movie basement. It was unfinished, poorly lit, and apparently designed to terrorize kids. It was divided into three approximately equally sized rooms:

The wooden, backless staircase from upstairs dropped you into the first. It was mostly OK, but the only light switch was on the far wall away from the base of the stairs, so you had to feel around in the dark to turn on the lights. This is where my parents put the piano I had to practice every day.

The second was separated from the first by a long wall with two large cutout “doors”. One of the doors let into a storage room where we kept canned foods, the furnace, and an opening toward the third portion of the basement. The second was mostly storage. For reasons never told to me, this door was covered with a blue velvet curtain you had to push through, and once inside you had to feel around in the dark for the pull string bulb. The far side of it also opened into the farthest section.

The back part was somehow the least creepy, even though it’s where we stored antiques and my dad’s wood shop. It still had those stupid pullstring lights, though, until you got to the far-far wall where there were switches for the fluorescents over the table saw and lathe.

Digression: my dad’s favorite game was “let the kids watch scary movies, then send them to the basement on errands”. It played out like this: little Kirk is watching The Shining on TV. It’s over and his dad says, “hey, I need to fix this remote. Go get my screwdriver, would you?” He gulps and goes down the basement stairs – the ones without backs so a bathtub woman could reach through them and pull him down to hell. He leaves the pool of light at the bottom, walks across the concrete, and gropes in panic for the switch. He finds it, then pushes through the velvet curtain which immediately falls shut behind him and leaves him in pitch black. Heart racing, he finds the pullstring. Light. He sort of sees the next pullstring farther back, so he sprints to it and yanks it. He yanks too hard and it fails to light, bouncing back upward and landing on top of a chest of drawers. He jumps until he can pull the string back down and yank it again. The light comes on and the demons withdraw back to the shadows. He more cautiously slinks over to the back wall, turns on the overheads, finds the screwdriver, and rests in relative safety for a few breaths. OK, time to retreat. He sets himself in a sprinter’s pose, reaches back to hit the switches, and darts back to the drawstring. Makes it. Does the same setup-switch-sprint combo to make it to the next pullstring safely. Tugs it and darts through the velvety cloak into light again. Pants. Goes to the wall switch, steels himself, and flicks it off. Leaps toward the stairs to hear his laughing dad turn off the light at the top and close the basement door. Climbs a flight in approximately .2 seconds, opening the door and bounding through it in one practiced motion. Sees Dad who examines the screwdriver carefully:

“I needed a Phillips. Go get it.”

My dad was really a great guy, but he’d been through a war and ended up as a mortician. His good intentions were that his kids would get desensitized to their own internal fears and live as carefree adults, free of the dumb little phobias that nag us all. Did it work? You bet it didn’t! But he tried.

Anyway.

So the basement was a horror story set, and yet it’s the one we had so we went with it. During daylight, you could start at the stairs, rollerskate past the furnace into Dad’s shop, loop back around and shoot through the velvet curtain, and go again for another lap around. That was pretty cool.

One un-daylit evening I was downstairs practicing the piano with my little dog sleeping on the rug next to me. I was plinking away until she stood up and stared into the black maw of the furnace room, hackles raising. I stopped. She didn’t. She crept an inch forward, then another, growling, then exploded into barking fury and raced into the back.

I sat on the bench, petrified.

Still barking furiously, she followed my skating path, dashed back into the room with me, rounded the corner, and tore back off into the back.

My breath and heart had stopped. I was frozen in space and time.

My protective pup ran two more laps and raced one last time into the back.

And then “it” growled, low, guttural, and loud. She screamed in pain, reversed course to shoot past me, and flew up the stairs to safety.

I sat there, in the same dark basement with the thing that drove my dog into a frenzy before hurting her into abandoning me. My heart beat once, then twice. I erupted into a panicked explosion of terrified kid and somehow made it upstairs and locked the door in a single motion. I found my little dog, two long clawmarks across her face.

My parents came home and I told my dad what happened. He was afraid an animal had gotten in, but we went around with a flashlight and a shotgun. All of the windows were locked shut as usual, and there were no signs that anything could have gnawed through the concrete walls. Something hurt my doggy, though, and I didn’t have to practice piano after sunset for a while after that until Dad forgot the whole thing and we fell back into the old routines.

You think your basement was creepy? You don’t know what that word means. I have stories.

My phone was Lyfted

My son needed a ride to a Boy Scout campout yesterday and neither Jen nor I were home to take him. I had the idea to call a Lyft driver for him. My son accidentally left his phone in the Lyft car and this is the timeline of what happened as we tried to get it back. I’ll call the driver “Joe”:

5:09PM: I book a ride through the Lyft app. Joe picks up my son.
5:21PM: Joe drops off my son at the destination.
5:25PM: Jen calls me to say that my son left his phone in Joe’s car. She is home now.
5:29PM: I use the “Lose something?” link in the Lyft app to report this to Joe. Joe never replies.

For the next 45 minutes, we watch my son’s iPhone on “Find My Friends” and see Joe’s car parked right across from where my son was dropped off (but my son had already left again so he couldn’t go get it). I don’t worry yet because I’ve already reported the loss and I assume Joe will be a decent person and return the phone. I try a couple of times to request another Lyft ride, hoping that Joe will come back to my house so we could get the phone. Other drivers accept the requests but I cancel them because I only wanted Joe, not another ride.

6:13PM: My wife calls the phone but it goes straight to voicemail.
6:23PM: Starting to get nervous, I take a screenshot of “Find My Friends” to have a record of its last known location. (This comes up later.) Shortly after this, the phone disappears from “Find My Friends”.
6:56PM: Worried now, after much frantic search I find that I can contact Lyft through Twitter. I do so. We have a slow, agonizing conversation because it takes the Twitter person many minutes to reply after each of my messages. They tell me I can’t call Lyft’s contact phone number because that’s only for emergencies.
7:56PM: I use Lyft’s website to file two missing item reports: one to the Lost & Found department, and another one to the “Lose something?” link. Lyft explains that they only get messages explicitly sent to the Lost & Found department, that the “Lose something?” link goes directly to the driver, and that Lyft’s customer service doesn’t have access to those messages.
7:58PM: Joe texts me. He miraculously got this message, just not the one I sent at 5:29PM. He tells me he looked for the phone but didn’t find it. I reply that I watched it drive around Alameda. He said he got another request from my home address for a Lyft. I reply that I was trying to get him to come back to my house so I could recover the phone. I also told him where I last saw my son’s phone on “Find My Friends”. Joe replies that this is where he lives.
8:06PM: Joe calls me and we talk. He says he looked but couldn’t find it. I ask him to look under the seats. He says it’s not there. I said I will have to call the police to make a report for insurance and ask if he will be willing to talk to them to help me. He gets very agitated and defensive. I assure him that I’m not blaming him but might need his help. Suddenly he changes his story to say he has taken two rides since my son. I say, “oh man, that’s too bad. Now I’ll definitely have to make a police report.” Then he changes the story again to say he’s taken “several” rides, including one to the airport, and that one of those people must have it.
8:13PM: I call the Alameda police department to report it stolen. An officer cames out a little later and I give her all this information. She’ll be contacting him if she hasn’t already.

I like to believe the best of people and I kept reassuring myself and my wife by saying, “oh, it’s wedged up under his seat or something”. But this paints a really, really bad picture for Joe:

  • Why didn’t he reply to the 5:29PM message I sent through Lyft? We’d already texted my son’s phone several times by then and Joe had to have heard it. By the time I first reported it as lost, Joe knew the phone was still in his car. There’s no way he didn’t.
  • The phone’s last known location was at Joe’s house, which was only a few blocks away from where he took my son. That’s by Joe’s own words. That’s where the phone was when it went offline – not off cruising through the city. I watched “Find My Friends” the whole time and it was only two places before it stopped responding: my son’s destination and Joe’s house. It certainly wasn’t at any airport.
  • Why did the phone go offline a couple of minutes after my wife called it while it was sitting at Joe’s house?

The police will draw their own conclusions and they may or may not get it back. I don’t know. All I know is that my son is out his Christmas present, it disappeared from Joe’s possession, Joe ignored my first attempts to recover it, and it was turned off while it was parked at Joe’s house right after Jen called it. The only plausible explanation I can come up with is that Lyft’s driver is a lying thief and I’m out $600 because I chose to use their service. I can’t conclusively prove what happened, but I’m 100% convinced I’m right. There’s just no other answer that fits the evidence.

The worst part is that I gave Joe a 5 star review and a 20% tip before I knew what happened. That’s just adding insult to injury.

Information I gave the police

By the time the police officer visited, I had gathered up:

  • Joe’s picture from the Lyft receipt
  • A transcript of my text chat with Joe
  • A screenshot of “Find My Friends” showing the phone at Joe’s house
  • A transcript of my Twitter chat with Lyft
  • The phone’s serial number
  • This timeline

I have a stack of paperwork proving my side of the story. It’s not something I just made up.

Lyft through all this

For their part, Lyft’s support people have been very pleasant and as helpful as they could reasonably be. There are a few things I believe directly contributed to this outcome, though:

  • According to Lyft, the “Lost something?” link in the app and in email receipts goes directly to the driver. It does not go to Lyft. They had no record that I’d attempted to contact the driver.
  • They only offer phone support for emergency accident situations. The only other form of interactive help I found was via Twitter. In this situation, every minute counted and it took a long time to get the conversation started.
  • Once engaged with Twitter, the average response time between when I sent them a message and they replied to it was 7.5 minutes. Again, when time is of the essence those silent minutes stretched out long.
  • Lyft’s privacy policy reasonably and fairly prevents them from sharing information about Joe’s other rides without a court order. I stand behind that policy. It’s good. However, I wish they could confirm whether Joe actually drove to the airport last night. I don’t believe that would be a violation of Lyft’s riders’ privacy because it could only reveal that some person in this part of the city went to the airport. Statistically, that’s a certainty anyway. It would also not be a violation of Joe’s privacy because he volunteered the information; Lyft would only be confirming what he had already stated.

I think they could make changes that would help resolve such situations more quickly and satisfactorily:

  • Provide a non-emergency customer service phone number so that riders can engage Lyft support more quickly when necessary.
  • Log “Lost something?” messages to riders’ accounts so that support is more quickly aware of urgent situations.
  • Provide additional online communications channels like web chat. I love Twitter and use it often but that’s a poor primary support method. I can imagine how frustrating it would have been to have had to sign up for a Twitter account before I could start a conversation with Lyft.
  • Hire more support employees. The support staff I spoke with was very polite and helpful but I got the mental image of three well-meaning but overworked employees trying to help 40 people at once.
  • Mostly importantly, stop offering ride requests to drivers as soon as something is reported missing. When I first used the “Lost something?” link, Joe was still parked within a short distance of where he’d dropped my son off. If Lyft had a “take the driver offline until they respond” policy, this whole episode could have ended 8 minutes after it began. There would have been no question of what happened because no one else would have been in the car, and Joe would have had an incentive to reply because he would have stopped earning money.

These changes would go a long way toward making a highly stressful situation a little more bearable. I would have felt I was working with Lyft instead of in spite of them.

Update

Day two

10:12AM: Lyft contacts me to explain their privacy policy. They also inform me that it’s against Lyft’s policies for unaccompanied minors to use the service. I didn’t know that. As a driver, though, I presume Joe knew Lyft’s rules. I guess he’s OK with breaking all sorts of rules when he can benefit.

Christmases Past

How I imagined the backstory of the dad from “A Christmas Story”:

I’ve seen things. Lots of us have: it was a long war. Terrible things, like Anzio ’44. Wonderful things, like summer in liberated Paris. I’ve seen these, and I’ve remembered them.

I wasn’t supposed to be home very long, just a while to relax a bit and then join my buddies on our way to Asia, maybe Africa. I’ve heard Brazil is lovely. Smitty changed his mind after Kimbal got lost to a land mine, though, and anyway I’d met her by then. She’d never been outside her Midwest town along the rail line to San Francisco, but I guess after a couple of beers we both found something to like. I needed her all-Americanness. She enjoyed my stories – at least, the ones I dared tell her. I never planned to stay. No matter. The days faded into months, and her idea for me to use my G.I. Bill to get a degree in accounting was solid. The boys wouldn’t have believed it. Me, in an office! But why not. We all settle down eventually, right?

My wife will never go with me. I’ve accepted that. We have a good life, even if this town gets a little small. We won’t dance the night away in Milan but there’s a warm bed and dinner on the table every night. That counts for a lot. I just wish… they understood. That I need a little escape sometimes. That I need to be outside this town every now and then, running with the bulls or racing to victory. I can read and I can imagine and that works for me. I’ve earned that, haven’t I? I know I can’t be a bush pilot now, so don’t remind me that it’s only my silly fantasy. I know this. I need a few minutes to pretend, that’s all.

One boy takes after my wife. He’s a good kid. He’ll be a solid office man too one day. Perhaps a tradesman. Yeah, I could see that. I know he won’t leave the state – God willing, he won’t have to like I did. He’s home and that’s big enough for him. I’m not sure about the other son. I think I see a spark in him. I think he might take after me, for better or for worse. He wonders about things. He dreams. I can see it. This isn’t a great place for wonderers and dreamers, don’t I know, but maybe I can fan that spark into something wonderful. Something to get him out of here. Something to help him see things, terrible and wonderful things that he can remember. He can have his own silly fantasies, and if my Ralphie wants to be Red Ryder and have his own BB gun with a compass in the stock, then that’s what Santa is going to bring him.

Adventures in Comcast support

We live outside San Francisco, and Comcast is our cable provider. We wanted to watch college football on TV so I visited Comcast’s website to add the “Sports Entertainment Package” for $10 per month. Immediately after turning on the big game, we found that the BTN channel was in old-style “standard definition” (SD), not HD. On top of that, Comcast’s channel feed was so terrible that it was almost unwatchable: we couldn’t always see the football.

I contact Comcast’s tech support to help find the HD version of the channel. This is the transcript of that conversation:

Problem: Can’t find BTN HD
CHAT ID: 9244E213-3F78-4690-87BA-6A69C55B7A90
Comcast tech: Hello Kirk, Thank you for contacting Comcast Live Chat Support. My name is [TECH]. Please give me one moment to review your information.
Comcast tech: How’s your day going?
Me: My Issue: Can’t find BTN HD
Me: Hi [TECH]
Comcast tech: Hello Kirk.
Me: I added a sports package to my account so I could watch football on BTN.
Me: But I can only find the SD channel, not the HD version.
Comcast tech: I am glad that you have brought this concern to our attention.
Comcast tech: I am glad that you have brought this concern to our attention.
Comcast tech: Rest assured that I can definitely help you to ressolve your issue today and I’ll be more than happy to assist you.
Comcast tech: But before we start, may I ask you a few questions please?
Me: Sure!
Comcast tech: Thank you.
Comcast tech: For account verification, may I have your account number please?

Note: the web page I’d been looking at when I started the chat showed this information. Comcast’s own systems apparently don’t communicate with each other. I logged into the website in another browser tab so I could copy and paste my account number.

Me: Umm, let me look.
Comcast tech: Sure.
Me: [long number]
Comcast tech: Much appreciated, thank you so much.
Comcast tech: Kirk, may I place you on hold for 2-3 minutes while I am reviewing your account and checking the BTN HD channel for you please?
Me: Sure.
Comcast tech: Much appreciated, thank you so much.
Comcast tech: Thank you for patiently waiting.
Me: Certainly.
Comcast tech: Kirk, upon reviewing your account, I see that your current package is the Preferred Double Play and you added the Sports Entertainment Package for you to access this Big Ten Network. However, youcan’t access the BTN HD, Right?
Me: That is correct.
Comcast tech: Thank you.
Comcast tech: Would you mind my asking what channel is the BTN SD on your end please?
Me: 403

Appropriate.

Comcast tech: Thank you for that information.
Comcast tech: One moment please?
Me: Sure.
Comcast tech: Much appreciated, thank you so much.
Comcast tech: Thank you for waiting.
Comcast tech: Kirk, I am seeing here that you added the Sports Entertainment Package just today. Right?
Me: Correct.
Comcast tech: You were able to access this BTN in SD channel and not in HD. Right?
Me: Correct.
Comcast tech: Thank you.
Comcast tech: May I have the serial number of your box please? It is located at the back/bottom of the cable box with HOST S/M or MCARD SN and it starts with M1, MA, PA, PK, SA or GI.
Me: This will take a moment as I tear my living room apart.

I was being a little sarcastic. Our cable box is installed in an entertainment center and I had to disconnect several cables to get at the box. I’ve worked tech support before, though, so I understand that the tech had a procedure to follow and I went along with it.

Comcast tech: Sure.
Comcast tech: o problem.
Comcast tech: No*
Comcast tech: I’ll wait for the serial.
Me: [another long number]
Comcast tech: Thanks for the serial.
Comcast tech: Just hold on please?
Comcast tech: Thank you for waiting.
Comcast tech: Kirk, I am still on the process of troubleshooting your box.
Comcast tech: I will also send a signal directly to your box.
Me: It just rebooted (or something very much like it).
Comcast tech: The signal I sent will turn off the cable box, you may need to turn the cable box manually using remote or by pressing Power on the box.
Comcast tech: Signal fully sent to your box.
Me: It’s showing a “ONE MOMENT PLEASE” message.
Comcast tech: No worries, that is normal. We just need to allow the box now to load all its data.
Comcast tech: Kirk, are you still getting the One Moment Please message?
Me: Now it says: INTERACTIVE SERVICE – XOD, To activate service, press OK
Comcast tech: Just follow the instructions please.

I’ve been following the instructions. Don’t get snippy.

Comcast tech: Press ok.
Me: Now I’m in XFinity on demand.
Comcast tech: Okay.
Comcast tech: Hold on please?
Me: For the record, my house guests are about to revolt against me. We’ve missed two touchdowns.
Comcast tech: I certainly understand that, Kirk. I am sincerely sorry for the inconvenience.
Comcast tech: Just hold on please?
Me: Holding.
Comcast tech: Thank you.
Comcast tech: Kirk, upon double checking here, the Big Ten Network in HD channel is not available in your area.
Comcast tech: What available is the BTN SD only in your area.
Comcast tech: I am sorry for that, Kirk.
Comcast tech: I hope you understand.

What? First, that’s ridiculous. Who wants to watch football – on a premium channel, no less – when they can’t physically see the ball? Second, it would’ve been nice had the tech checked this before resetting my cable box.

Me: I do not wish to be rude to you, [TECH], because you have been very helpful.
Me: But no, I don’t understand. Is that a joke?
Me: I would pay $10 a month to watch football with horrible picture quality?
Me: That’s unacceptable.
Comcast tech: I perfectly understand you, Kirk. I understand the frustration that you have right know. However, as much I love to give you this BTN HD but Comcast doesn’t have an agreement yet for BTN HD in your location.
Comcast tech: I hope you understand.
Me: No, but whatever. My cable box is still rebooting. My guests are leaving to go to a local restaurant.
Comcast tech: I already exhausted all my resources to address your concern today. I found out that this BTN HD is not yet available in your area.
Me: You did that after rebooting my cable box, which still hasn’t started back up. I wish you had checked first.
Comcast tech: I am sorry to know that your guest went out to a local restaurant.
Me: Because you broke my TV.
Comcast tech: My sincere apologies for the inconvenience.
Me: How long is this expected to take to restart?
Comcast tech: We need to allow the box now to load all its data. This may take 45-60 minutes for the box to download all its settings. You may see an error on your On Demand, To Be Announced on your Guide and One Moment Please on your channels.
Me: AN HOUR?!? ON GAME DAY?!? ARE YOU KIDDING ME?

Our guests are not amused at this revelation.

Comcast tech: Nope. The regular channels will only take 10-15 minutes to restart.
Me: OK, I think we’re done here.
Comcast tech: Kirk, again, I do apologize for the inconvenience. I know how important for you to watch the football game.
Comcast tech: Thank you.
Comcast tech: Is there anything else that I can help you with?
Me: For the love of all that is holy, please don’t help with anything else. No.

It’s been well over an hour now and our cable box is still unusable.

Comcast, this is why people are cutting the cord. I expect to do so later this week.

To Sell A Car

In the process of moving to another state, we decided to sell my car to some friends. This turned out to be much harder than anticipated.

I admit that this is entirely my fault and I deserve to be made fun of for it, but we couldn’t find the title. It could be that the bank which financed the loan never sent it to us. It could be that it’s in our safe deposit box in our last city and that I’ll find it next month when I go back for the rest of our stuff. Or maybe I’m just a bad document caretaker and I lost it along the way. I don’t know. But the end result is that we don’t have the title and needed to have a duplicate issued before we can sell the car.

Late May

I called the county clerk’s office to ask how to apply for a duplicate title. The clerk was very helpful and friendly, and offered to look up the necessary information while I was on the phone. I gave her my car’s VIN and my personal information, and she came back with the unwelcome news that the bank still had a collateral lien on the car. I pointed out that I bought it used in 2000 and didn’t have a 12-year loan on a used Oldsmobile, and that I hadn’t been arrested for chronic non-payment of the loan. She laughingly agreed that I’d clearly paid it off, but needed a notarized lien release from the financing bank before she could issue a new title.

When I tried to find contact information for that bank, I discovered they had been acquired by another bank in 2004 and no longer existed.

OK. So.

Early June

I called the new bank, Regions, and explained the situation. They were more pleasant and easier to work with than I’d feared, but couldn’t find any information about my paid-off-9-years-ago loan from their subsidiary. They took all my information, though, and agreed to send a lien release if they couldn’t find proof that I still owed them money. That seemed perfectly fair and reasonable – from a bank! – and I sat back to wait for the letter to arrive.

It didn’t arrive.

Late June

I called Regions again. They were missing some information from the lien release application form (but weren’t sure exactly which information) and needed to re-file it. Given how nice they were and that I wasn’t even their customer any more, I didn’t protest or complain too much.

July

A couple of week later, the official, notarized lien release came in the mail. The VIN wasn’t quite identical to the one I gave them, but I hoped the county clerk would call it “good enough” and accept the note.

Now we were ready to apply for the replacement title. The state’s form required that Jen and I both have our signatures notarized, so on a sunny Saturday, we drove to a nearby UPS Store and paid up. We stuffed the lien release letter, the application, and a check for $14 in an envelope and mailed it to the county clerk’s office.

August

Not a peep from the county clerk. I didn’t rush things because, well, government office… But after a few weeks of silence, I called to check on the application.

The county clerk never received it.

The notarized application? The check? The necessary, certified original copy of the lien release? Lost forever to the mail system.

I asked the clerk if I could just take the car out back and burn it, as that might be the easiest way to dispose of it. She asked me to please not to.

I sheepishly called Regions again to explain the situation, apologize profusely, and to ask them to please send me yet another copy of the lien release. They cheerfully agreed to and collected all my information to fill out the request form.

I called US Bank to cancel my lost check and they told me there was a $30 change to stop payment on a $14 note. I told them not to bother and that I’d take my chances.

Now

And that’s where it stands. All I wanted to do is sell my car, and it’s involved the county clerk, three banks (one of them out of business), a UPS Store, and the post office. As of today, I’m no closer to the goal than I was two months ago.

As a side note: yeah, it was my fault for losing the original title (if I ever even had it). But I wouldn’t have been able to transfer the title to the new owners without the lien release anyway, so this was destined to be a pain in the butt in any case.