Monday, August 26, 2013

Idea: AutoZen

My dad cared about maintenance. Not just of his car, but just about every car he could keep tabs on. I'm the same way, and thinking about making a simple tool to make this easier.

A rough prototype of the 4 pages is below (or at gomockingbird). Any feedback is welcome, either in the comments or by email.

Landing Page

The landing page should answer the questions "Why?" and "How much?" as well as addressing the risk of putting data into a new service. If you can export the data right away, there is little risk of losing your work.

Home Page

I want the home page to give me an idea of what should be coming up, and easily let me record what I've done. The fewer clicks, the better. 

The estimate of what the service will cost is based on previous data. In my experience "How much is it?" is always the first question someone has about oil changes, and it's helpful to be able to know this right away.


Just a simple place to see the history of each car. It should be easy to print off a copy when trading-in or selling to private party. Detailed auto records often fetch much higher prices for used cars, and the system can do this for us easily.

Add a Car

Eventually, the details of the car can pull a recommended maintenance schedule, useful for creating reminders on the home page.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

MegaCorp Risk

When signing up for a service with startups, you have to decide if the risk they'll be around in a year is worth it. With MegaCorps, you have to decide if the risk they'll cost you several hours a month on the phone is worth it.

I'm on hold with Bell Canada as I write this. Fed up with the way Rogers Cable Internet seems to go out for hours a week during prime Netflix time, I walked down the street on June 17 to switch my internet provider. They promptly signed me up and sent me on my way, informing me the modem would be in the mail and someone would be out to activate my line on June 19. The line went active as planned.

The modem didn't arrive. I called in, they called back. I finally ended up with a tracking number, which said it had failed to deliver for several days in a row. Someone at Bell suggested I go to the delivery distribution center to pick up the modem -- 30 minutes away by car, and only during business hours. Terrible customer service for a place that has a retail store no more than a ten minute walk from my place.

I knew I didn't want the service anymore. I called Bell proactively to cancel and was marched through a half-dozen cycles of being put on hold and transferred to another department. Finally I was told that if I didn't use the service, I wouldn't be billed. Sounded like nonsense, but after 45 minutes on the phone I was looking for any excuse to hang up.

Another bill came. I now owed $102 for a service I had never received and didn't want in the first place. I called again, went through the same holds and transfers, and ended up talking to a sales guy who just wanted to know "what [he] had to do to keep my contract going?" Reluctantly, he agreed to cancel the service, saying it would be canceled within the week.

The next month another bill showed up. I now owed $145 for a service I didn't want, had never used, and would never use. Calmly, I picked up the phone and informed the representative I had been wrongly charged, would not be paying, and wanted no further phone calls on the matter. She responded by saying that next a collection agency would be coming for me, all while agreeing it was ridiculous I owed so much money for something I never received.

Finally, after two more transfers I landed with the first competent, helpful person in the organization. After 38 minutes on the phone this time the account was actually canceled, and the balance was returned to zero before I hung up.

I prefer small- and medium-sized businesses.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Lockport Cave

I had never actually seen a firehose attached to a hydrant until we pulled up to the Lockport Cave in Lockport, New York. Thick black smoke filled the sky and seemed to get closer with every turn Google Maps told us to take. The smoke was coming from an old building directly across the street from the caves, but we had no trouble signing up for the last tour of the day at 4:00.

15 minutes later, we got some bad news: potential arsonists had the police asking the Lockport Cave operator to refund the money for the 4:00 tour. With the structure of a nearby railroad bridge in danger, and the thread of changing winds blowing smoke into all of our faces, the last tour of the day wasn't going to happen.

We did get to take a self-guided walking tour of the locks along the Erie Canal. Balki and Ginger graciously put up with me recalling one part of Low Bridge on an almost infinite loop:
I've got a mule and her name is Sal
Fifteen miles on the Erie Canal
She's a good old worker and a good old pal
Fifteen miles on the Erie Canal
While walking the enormous locks we saw Miss Jenny Lynn and another small boat go through. The wait time for a lock to fill up is long enough that I could ask the boaters a few questions. Apparently, they head out a few times a year on a season pass to get through all the locks, and you don't need to have appointments ahead of time. If you're looking to rent a boat for the weekend, a 2-day pass is also available.

We also talked to the the lock operator. He is now working 11 hours per day, typically running 15 boats through in that time. Some of the boats get up to 50 feet, but usually anything over that will run into height issues with the bridges along the canal. It's mostly tourists and vacationers now, not too many barges of iron ore these days.

As we were leaving, we noticed a cutout. We can't resist cutouts.

More on flickr.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Toronto Transit: 3 Things

I moved to Toronto half a year ago. This month, I learned some important things about the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC).

1. Preorder monthly passes at a discount

TTC offers a Metropass Discount Program. If you sign up for a year in advance, you can get each monthly pass mailed to your home for $117.75 per month. The pass shows up more than a week in advance and is $10.75 less than buying it at the station.

2. Deduct the cost of a Metropass from your taxes

On the back of each card is a place for the cardholder to sign. Depending on your tax situation, it's possible you can deduct the amount of the pass. You must keep the cards from every month to do this.

3. Work may only cover part of it

Many companies have a transit benefit that is capped at a certain amount of dollars. In cities with lower cost transit, it generally covers an entire month. With Toronto's $128.50 monthly fee, only a part of it will be covered.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Michigan Should Create a Prize for a Working Animal Abuser Registry

Michigan was marching toward becoming the first state with a registry of animal abusers, much like the registry of sex offenders. Those plans are now canceled, for reasons that surprise no one.
the proposed registry has run into resistance from state police officials and others who fear it would be expensive and cumbersome
Instead, Republican Senator Rick Jones and Democratic Senator Steve Bieda are co-sponsoring a bill that requires breeders to pay $10 for Michigan-only background checks, and animal shelters to run free background checks. Why? A quote from Sen. Jones in the linked article (emphasis mine):
It's a start. Would I like it to be in law that no breeder or pet store would sell animals to someone who had been convicted? Absolutely. But we're looking for something we can get passed, and I think this is a good step,
We hear this constantly in software consulting. A good solution is identified and estimated only to discover the solution costs too much. The right next move is to find a way that gets you to the right solution for a lower cost, usually incrementally. Often, the next move is like what's quoted above -- finish something, anything, whether or not it accomplishes the goal, so we can say we finished something.

If we want a registry by the end of the year, let's put out a prize for a working registry by the end of the year. Make the prize $100,000; a reward high enough that I'd start working tonight, and lower than any piece of current government software. End the contest on November 30 and take two weeks to select the best application, in public. Every submission must be an open source web application.

By January 2014, we'll have a registry running. It worked for the railroads.