Twin Tales of Customer Service

Customer service, like every country ever written about in a junior high school social studies paper, is a land of contrasts. Here are two brief examples I’ve encountered recently, one great, the other…the opposite of that.

The Anti-Great
A couple of Saturdays ago, I was sitting at home, roughly a dozen feet from our front door. I heard a thump, which is not the same thing as a knock, and definitely bears no resemblance to the ding of our doorbell. (Yes, our doorbell just goes ding. It used to go ding-dong, but, shortly after we moved in, it got all surly and decided it was going to only to do half of that.)

I opened the door just in time to see a FedEx truck pulling away, and found a door tag that opened with a hearty “Sorry we missed you!” I muttered something pithy under my breath, something like “…but you can’t be, because you didn’t…” and called their 800 number. After providing the door tag number and explaining that I could actually still see the delivery truck driving down the road, I asked if they could just ask the driver to turn around.

This was, apparently, hilarious.

“Oh, no”, the service representative said with a laugh, “we don’t have any way to contact our day drivers.”

Of course. Silly me.

“No, nothing at all is going to happen until Tuesday, when they’ll try to deliver it again.”

I asked why Tuesday and not Monday, as, so far as I knew, Monday wasn’t a holiday. This was also hilarious, because, apparently, everybody but me knows that FedEx drivers only work Tuesday through Saturday.

Clearly, I’m just not top-quality FedEx customer material. And I only disappointed them further when I told them that nobody would be home to sign for the package during normal business hours the following week, as my wife and I are both normal people who have jobs at normal businesses.

At this point, they offered to hold it at a local facility, and gave me the choice of an office that’s here in Oshkosh (WI, if you’ve only just joined us) right on our way home from work, or the next closest in Appleton, which is about a 30 minute drive. I chose Oshkosh, they promised to call my wife’s cell phone when it was ready for pickup on Tuesday, and that was that. Except that of course it wasn’t.

On Tuesday afternoon, we checked the package’s tracking, and it showed as “in transit” so we just went home.

Wednesday was lot like Tuesday, except it’s harder to spell when we got home, there was a message on the answering machine we still have for some reason. The message was from FedEx, and announced happily that our package was now available, per our request, for pickup in Appleton.

In Appleton.

The phone call this time played out in a vaguely “Who’s on First?” sort of way:

FedEx: “Okay, Mr. Bryan, I see that you asked for the package to be held for pickup at our office in Oshkosh, is that correct?”

Me: “Yes.”

FedEx: “All right, then how can we help you?”

Me: “Where is the package now?”

FedEx: “It’s being held for pickup at our office in Appleton.”

Me: “Right. So…when will it come to Oshkosh?”

FedEx: “But you asked for it to be held in Oshkosh.”

Me: “Yes, I sure did. When it will be there?”

FedEx: “It’s available for pickup now.”

Me: “Where?”

FedEx: “At our office in Appleton.”

Me: “Exactly.”

FedEx: “So how can we help you?”

Me: “You can tell me when you’re bringing the package to Oshkosh.”

FedEx: “But you asked us to hold it for you for pickup at our office on South Koeller street in Oshkosh.”

Me: “Yes. Yes, I did. Is the package there?”

FedEx: “Yes. It’s available for pickup at our office in Appleton.”

Me: “Does that make sense to you?”

FedEx: “Well, yes – you asked for the package to be held for pickup, and it’s available now. If you’d prefer, we can reschedule a delivery, as long as you’ll be home during normal business hours.”

Me: “Wow.”

FedEx: “What?”

Me: “I asked that you hold the package for pickup, correct?”

FedEx: “Yes.”

Me: “You offered me a choice of locations. Which location did I choose?”

FedEx: “The office in Oshkosh.”

Me: “And where, precisely, is the package now?”

FedEx: “It’s available for pickup.”

Me: “Where?”

FedEx: “At our office.”

Me: “In. What. City.”

FedEx: “Appleton.”

Me: “Are Oshkosh and Appleton the same place?”

FedEx: “I don’t follo- Oh.”

After a thoroughly perfunctory apology for the inconvenience, I was promised that the package would be relocated to Oshkosh by the end of the following day, Thursday.

All I knew for certain at this point was that, wherever the package went and whenever it went there, it would not be in in Oshkosh on Thursday.

As it turned out, it wasn’t there on Friday, either.

One thing I’ve learned as my wisdom becomes more seasoned with age, is that some things just aren’t worth the effort, that it’s important to choose your battles; not every hill is worth dying on.

On Saturday morning, my wife and I decided to go to Appleton to do some shopping. Since we were going to be there anyway, I decided to just let FedEx win this one. I actually said, aloud, “FedEx, you win. I surrender!” It was cathartic, even though it kind of scared the cat.

We checked the tracking one last time, and drove to the FedEx office in Appleton. In my state of post-surrender Zen, I just let the whole thing go, wiping it from my memory with each exhalation, until it was all just gone. I actually began to believe that I’d asked for the package to be held in Appleton, that this was all just going according to plan.

Ten minutes later, we left FedEx’s Appleton office empty-handed. I was actually laughing, though it was the kind of laugh that brought with it an involuntary twitch in my right eye.

When we’d walked in and presented our door tag, the clerk’s face kind of contracted as if she was staring into the sun.

“Ooh, gosh… I’m sorry. That package just left about an hour ago,” she said. “They told us you wanted it held for pickup in Oshkosh…?”

The word I said next, in a trembling falsetto, sounded something like “…flurben?!?”

After a breath or two, while mentally chanting “It’s not her fault, it’s not her fault”, I asked when it would get there.

“Looks like it got there about a half hour ago,” she said.

Of course it did.

“So we can pick it up this afternoon, is that right?” I asked.

“Ooh, no… I’m sorry. It won’t be available for pickup –“

’Til Tuesday,” we finished in unison.

This time, they were right, though that may just have been luck on their part. We picked it up in Oshkosh that following Tuesday. The package consisted of several bottles of wine, which, admittedly, helped. We opened the first one, and drank a toast to FedEx, declaring there to be no hard feelings. Which, of course, was a lie.

The Truly Great
Fresh from the other end of the spectrum comes a much shorter story about another recent customer service encounter, this one with a wonderful company called Canvas on Demand (hereafter referred to as CoD.)photo

My wife bought a Groupon discount for a mounted print from CoD. The picture we chose is one that I think of as the best photograph of me ever taken: It’s got a beautiful sky, a gorgeous airplane, and all you can see of me is my head which is reduced to a single pixel. It was taken a few years ago in Guelph, ON, Canada, by my dear, dear friend Michelle.

Anyway, I said this story would be shorter, and I was actually telling the truth. Here’s what happened, in easily digestible bullet points:

  • I placed the order for the print, and happily accepted a few of their upsold framing options.
  • The print arrived a short time later. It was exceptionally well-packed, the workmanship on the mounting and the hardware was absolutely top-notch, and the picture itself was gorgeous, and totally exceeded my expectations.
  • Except…it wasn’t framed in the way that I’d asked.
  • I emailed CoD, and told them about the problem.
  • I offered to accept a refund or even a “store credit” for the difference between what I’d paid and what they delivered – the picture was beautiful, and I wasn’t excited about repackaging it and sending it back. (Since I’d probably have to drive to Appleton and use FedEx because the Universe can be a jerk sometimes…)
  • I got an email back the next day that started with “NO worries!” and only got better.
  • Just over a week later, I got a second picture, framed precisely as I’d asked. No charge, no RMA numbers, no mention of returning the “defective” picture whatsoever.

“NO worries!” indeed. There was a problem, they fixed it right, and they fixed it fast. My guess is that they actually lost money on the deal, but it was still good business, because, in me, they have a happy and loyal customer for life. And, hopefully, some of you will remember my experience and consider my new pals at CoD for all of your made-to-order canvas printing needs, should you have any. And if you don’t have any, you should come up with some.

It’s funny how short the happy story is compared to the angry one, even in my trademarked Overwrought Style™. I think there’s a good lesson there for anyone with customers of any kind:

Do the right thing. If nothing else, it’s just an awful lot easier.

Posted in Egocentric | 4 Comments

Catching up by cheating: latest videos

For those that haven’t found these elsewhere, here’s a few videos I’ve posted over the last several weeks.

First, a clip called “Welcome to Cornell”, showing my first crack at a PT-26, the appetizer before an amazing ham dinner at a nearby airstrip. Generously shot by a friend I’ll call "Bruce" on my new toy, a MinoHD:


Next, a series of three videos showing the magnificent and wonderfully rare Pitcairn PA-18 autogiro that’s been visiting here in Oshkosh lately. The first shows it’s arrival, the next two show some clips of it flying in the circuit at Pioneer airport:




Pictures are worth a thousand words; moving pictures, doubly so.

Posted in Egocentric, Fly-y | Leave a comment

Rebooting a Franchise

It worked for Batman.

It worked for Apollo and Starbuck.

James Bond did it, and so did Kirk, Spock, and Optimus Prime.

Even G.I. Joe and the fascist space lizards of V are going to give it a shot.

And now that all the cool kids are doing it, I figure it’s my turn, time to reboot my personal franchise, as it were.

Time for a new career … in a new place.

After a few months as a paradoxically busy layabout, I’m proud and exceptionally pleased to report that I have returned, with a distinct lack of kicking and no real screaming, to the ranks of the gainfully employed. Continuing my extraordinary run of good luck at building new jobs from the best bits of the old ones, I have accepted an extremely generous offer from the Experimental Aircraft Association as their new Online Community Manager.  Thus, my wife and I will soon be heading to America’s heartland, more importantly known as the Mecca of sport aviation – Oshkosh, Wisconsin.

Relocation will be bittersweet, naturally, though the Microsoft layoffs last January certainly have scattered some of my close friends and colleagues to the four winds already. Thankfully, things like email, Skype, Facebook, and my retired-United-pilot dad’s giveaway “companion passes” make the world a lot smaller than it used to be. I’ve been a proud EAA member for many years, and the opportunity to actually work for them is extremely exciting to say the least. I’ll be working alongside a number of friends I’ve made over the years, so immersed in the aviation world that I’ll go to work each day inside a building that’s actually located on two airports. (It’s tough to explain if you’ve never been.)

I’m eating a lot of cheese to try to build up an immunity, and honing my pronunciation of the phrase “Go Pack!” even though I have absolutely no idea what it actually means.

I’m also dreaming of great big skies and the rolling green hills of the countryside I’ve fallen in love with over my last dozen or so trips to the area. Not to mention enjoying four distinct seasons instead of the local two (grey and gorgeous), and the sheer number of aircraft I’m going to try to weasel myself into flying because that’s just who I am.

I’m expecting to have an EAA-specific blog up and running at some point, but I plan to keep this one around as well for the more personal bits of esoterica that need to find their way out to the Internet.

And should Microsoft decide to reboot that other franchise, the one that deserves it more than Knight Rider and The Bionic Woman combined, I’ll be first in line at GameStop. And happily reminding them that they’ve got friends at EAA.

See you at EAA AirVenture — July 27 – August 2, 2009!

Note: rumors that the part of Hal Bryan will be played by Katee Sackhoff, Dick Sargent or Barry Van Dyke are total fabrications.

Posted in Egocentric | 15 Comments

AVSIM Hacked

I just received this stunning, disturbing press release from the CEO and Publisher of I’m publishing it here not only to reach my direct audience, but to ensure that it is picked up on MSDN as well. My thoughts are with Tom and my many other friends on the AVSIM staff as they regroup and consider their options.



AVSIM Hacked

Tom Allensworth, CEO and Publisher of AVSIM, today issued the following announcement; “We regret to inform the flight simulation community that on Tuesday, May 12, AVSIM was hacked and effectively destroyed. The method of the hack makes recovery difficult, if not impossible, to recover from. Both servers, that is the library / email and web site / forum servers were attacked. AVSIM is totally offline at this time and we expect to be so for some time to come. We are not able to predict when we will be back online, if we can come back at all. We will post more news as we are able to in the coming days and weeks.

Posted in Flight Sim Centric | 4 Comments

Good Music, Good Business

Or, why I love the Internet, Vol. MCXXI …

A few months ago, I found myself completely entranced by a video of a young woman on the Internet.

While this sort of thing is not  uncommon amongst broadband-connected men of my age or any other, her talents most certainly were, and are. Her name is Julia Nunes, and, you’ll be pleased to know, my interest in her is decidedly non-creepy.

Julia is a twenty-year-old musician who sings and plays the ukulele just like I do. Except she’s way better than me. And I don’t sing unless there’s some kind of a cappella emergency and somebody needs a bass for a “bom buh-buh-bom duh-dang-di-dang-dang” sort of thing. Anyway, I was free-associating my way through YouTube and found her cover of one of my favorite songs of all time, the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows. ” That was followed quickly by a another favorite, the Beatles’ “All My Loving”, done slower, like the first part of the version in the film “Across the Universe.”

After watching these two, I was hooked. Her singing, her playing, her choice of songs, the tricky chord and tempo changes, the multitracked harmonies, her writing (on her originals), and the video editing captured my attention immediately, but there was something else. There’s a charm to her style, something that makes me happy and glad to have ears. Something the French elegantly fail to define by calling it je ne sais quoi. She’s engaging and witty (some of her “answers” videos where she responds to viewer comments are brilliant), but that’s not all of it. It’s that she projects a rare sort of fearlessness, as if it never occurred to her not to record her music and put it online for the world to see.

Something in our culture, something ugly, says that talent should be hidden and that success demands apology. It says that only those people who are A) willing to suffer indefinitely and 2) extraordinarily lucky will be allowed to enrich the lives of the rest of us. And then, only after a staggering army of faceless middlemen has stepped in to tell the talented what to do … and to tell the audience what to like.

Conventional wisdom says that we’d describe her as unselfconscious, which dictionaries define as “…natural or genuine.” This is completely backwards and upside down to me – people who are literally “not conscious of self” are hollow, timid shells, there’s nothing natural or genuine about them. Julia, clearly, has a profound sense of self that’s brightly displayed as one watches her doing what she loves to do.

Julia clearly works hard for her success now, but twenty years ago, even as little as ten, her story would have been dramatically different, if not simply impossible. In the days before the Internet (which, it kills me to realize, she might not even remember), her very ability to make and share music and video would have been entirely dependent on the impenetrable whims of giant corporations. In the heyday of record labels (a record is like a giant CD made of black vinyl) less than 1% of those artists who tried were actually signed. She’s become something of a phenomenon, a meme (a word that itself was invented not long before the Internet), and for the right reasons; she’s talented, and people enjoy hearing her music and watching her perform. She sells CDs published on a label she co-owns with her parents, does shows on her own, and has even toured with Ben Folds.

The tools, technology, and reach of the Internet have made it possible for artists like her to interact and trade directly with their audience. By creating and publishing her work online as she does, Julia is asking to be judged not by the cleverness of her marketing or the salaciousness of her scandals. She’s simply willing and able to succeed or fail on her own merits.  And she’s succeeding, as she should.

By way of a postscript, I recently ordered a CD by another singer-songwriter called Wade Johnston. I found Wade’s music because he’d done a duet with Julia that I’d spotted on her YouTube page, and from there I made with the clicking and the linking and the listening and the buying. Wade’s CD showed up promptly, and with it, in the envelope, was a receipt. I would suggest, with characteristic lack of hyperbole, that this was probably the best receipt in the entire history of people receiving things. It was, literally, a scrap of paper, torn edges and all, entirely handwritten. At the top, in block caps, it reads “OFFICIAL RECEIPT.” Below that, it says “Dear Hal, you gave me $6 for my CD. THANKS! enjoy,” then it’s signed.

Yes, I gave him six dollars and he gave me a CD. Other than the costs of duplication and printing of the CD and the sleeve, and the postage to mail it to me, Wade got most of the six dollars, orders of magnitude more than he’d have gotten in the “old days.”  While I’d suggest that I got the better end of the deal (it’s good music), it really was a win-win, the best kind of business. And in these ridiculously turbulent times, it’s only the very best kinds of businesses that will survive (unless they’re so dreadfully bad at it that they qualify for a government bailout.)

Just knowing that there’s talented, smart, and enterprising young people out there like Wade and Julia actually makes me optimistic; it’s more than just the music that puts this smile on my face.  It’s amazing that, thanks to the Internet, it’s not amazing that a couple of kids armed with ukuleles and computers (and, of course, talent) manage to reach out three thousand miles to their left and brighten my days.

Plus I get to watch videos of a college girl in her dorm without going to jail!

Posted in Egocentric | 1 Comment

Hal P. Bryan, Super Genius

My business cards, both my last cards from Microsoft and my current "between jobs" variant, read "Hal P. Bryan, Super Genius." When presented with one of these, most people get a good laugh out of my particular brand of mildly ironic self-aggrandizement, while a few actually get the specific reference. For any that don’t, it’s a nod to the cherished Warner Brothers cartoons from my childhood (when they were already more than 30 years old, thank you), as the terribly bright but hapless Wile E. Coyote identified himself the same way.  I grew up thinking not about how great it would be to actually be a super genius, but how funny it would be to put that on a business card. Such are the choices one makes.

The first time I added it to my Microsoft cards, I assumed they’d be denied and I’d get some sort of a talking to – I crave attention, after all. That faulty assumption was based on another one – the idea that, in a company the size of Microsoft, my humble request for a thousand business cards would actually be attended to personally by a human being, instead of just being fed through an automated and ridiculously efficient process. Suffice it to say that my official business cards identified me as a Super Genius, not to mention a Notary Public – but that last bit is another story.

Regardless, the reactions have always been positive, and good for starting conversations. Most recently, I gave one to a potential colleague while doing some work for the National Aviation Hall of Fame in Dayton, OH. This gentleman, Paul, gave it a long look, frowned a little, making me wonder if I’d finally found someone willing to be somehow offended by it. Then, he lowered the card, slowly, and, still frowning, looked me in the eye and said "So I’m assuming that you have close ties to the ACME Corporation?"

And that’s how I make friends.

Anyway, just last week, I actually found myself deciding not to give out a couple of my cards. This was unprecedented, and I regret it now, as I suspected I would. Here’s what happened:

My friend Scott, an Airbus driver temporarily between gigs, posted on Facebook that he was spending some of his days at the University of Washington’s  Aeronautical Laboratory, specifically in the Kirsten Wind Tunnel. This sounded interesting to me, and, being a fan of interesting things, I wrote him and invited myself to come visit. As it happened, Scott was working with a friend of his, Mike, who was also a long-lost childhood friend of mine. Thankfully, Mike had forgotten enough to think that it might be good to see me. Anyway, Mike works for a company that had built a wind tunnel model for another company that’s working on what could be a spectacularly cool new business jet. This jet is not pictured, to the right. (I think the names and such are public knowledge, but I’m erring on the side of circumspection here.)

Mike was kind enough to give me an in-depth tour of the facility, which was fascinating to me. Construction began in 1936, and the place has been operational since 1939. You can’t take a step without tripping over or ducking under history, given the designs that have been tested there. You can check out the link above for a detailed list, but my favorite had to be the the Taylor Aerocar model I saw hanging from the ceiling. You’ll also find models of cars, skiing helmets, boats, and even a Commerson’s Dolphin.

The tunnel itself is about what you’d expect – a big tube with windows, holes on both ends for the wind, and a sticky-uppy bit on which to mount a model for testing. But the rest of the place is overwhelming in its largely analog complexity. Every few steps there’s a half-flight of stairs that leads to a door beyond which there’s an impossibly giant room that’s filled with impossibly giant-er generators, electric motors, and giant metal boxes with levers and gauges calibrated in things like kilo-pascals-per-furlong. Between rooms, there are mazes of pipes and valves and the like that make the whole place look as if you took a submarine and turned it inside out in the Batcave.

There’s even a giant-scale working model of the facility itself that they use to plan tests, experiment with different airflow patterns, etc. I abruptly stopped looking at the model when I realized that I was afraid I’d see a tiny me looking back.

The single most fascinating part of the place for me was the fact that so much of the analog technology is still in use. And it’s not only viable, it’s extremely effective – their 6-degree "balance" (the thing underneath the aforementioned sticky-uppy bit) measures "moments" at resolutions in tiny fractions of inch-pounds, to offer an example that even a Super Genius can understand. In these mazes of elegant industrial complexity, it’s an overstatement, but not much of one, to say that computers are nearly an afterthought – the thing you plug in at the end so that you can use Excel instead of graph paper for making charts. This idea of history being used to build the future really resonated with me.

What also resonated with me was the fact that the facility is run by students. I say again, students.

Now, I don’t know how many of you have actually seen a college student lately, but be warned: these days, they’re less than half my age. And they’re smart, too. Granted, I can talk aerodynamics a bit better than the average lay person plucked at random from, say, the stands of a tractor-pull. I can nod sagely and pepper the talk with phrases like "pitching moment" and "Reynolds number" without being entirely disingenuous. But these people, these …fine, I’ll say it … these kids that are younger than the Internet and have no idea that Battlestar Galactica, Knight Rider, and the Bionic Woman are remakes … these kids are brilliant. And they not only understand the magnificent melange of technologies at their fingertips, unlike what I might expect from some of their peers, they genuinely respect it.

While that gives me all manner of hope for the future and all that, it was undeniably, and uncharacteristically humbling. Somehow, being a laid off 40-year-old who spent the last ten years of his career "sitting on his *** playing vidya games" seemed the tiniest bit less Super Genius-y in that company. So the cards, cards I’ve given blithely to test pilots, movie stars, authors and astronauts, they stayed in my pocket.

I got over it, and quickly, and now, as I said, I regret it. It would have been fun to keep in touch with some of these rising stars, and I’d guess that they’d appreciate the fact that even an old man of 40 can have a sense of humor. But I suppose it didn’t kill me to be humbled like that, however briefly.

Just don’t expect me to make a habit of it.

After all, "Hal P. Bryan, Genius" just doesn’t have the same ring to it.

Posted in Egocentric | 5 Comments

Dear Apple – My Music Player Has Been Talking to Me Since 2003

And it listens, too. And usually understands. 


Even before I left Microsoft, I was never an angry Apple-basher. Any grumbling I did about them was usually motivated by a slightly begrudging envy about how intuitive their products are and how miserably spot-on they were with their "Mac vs. PC" ad campaign, especially when it came to the classic Vista-basher, "Cancel or Allow."  While I confess that I’d really get shoe-tossingly frustrated at their ads that tout all the things you can do with an iPhone, because I’ve been doing all of those things and so much more with my Windows-based phones for several years, even that was envy-based. Apple repeatedly "wins" in three key areas: branding, marketing, and usability.

However, their key marketing message around the latest version of the iPod Shuffle is, not to put too fine a point on it, wrong.

One of its cool new features is a text-to-speech function that they call VoiceOver. According to their marketing site, VoiceOver is "…the feature that gives iPod shuffle a voice. With the press of a button, it tells you what song is playing and who’s performing it."

Because of this, Apple touts the new Shuffle as "The first music player that talks to you."

But it isn’t. It’s not the first at all.

And I don’t get that – Apple doesn’t need to lie. All they need to do is show some vaguely hip Gen-Z half-slacker smirking at the chrome and rounded corners of whatever they’re selling while the next Feist or Ingrid Michaelson sings plaintively in the background, and they’ll sell more of the next iAnything than there are people on the planet.

I’ve had a long and tumultuous relationship with my Windows Mobile gadgets.  I love what they can do, and I find that I actually, if masochistically, enjoy the ridiculous amount of tinkering required to make them do it. On the other hand, I hate what a bad job Microsoft, the hardware manufacturers and the cell carriers have done over the years in giving them useful names and then telling people about them. For example, I currently carry an AT&T Fuze, aka HTC Touch Pro, aka Raphael, aka P4600, aka Windows Mobile 6.1 Professional Device.

See what I meant about branding?

In addition to being my phone, my phone is my mini-laptop, my GPS, my ebook, my web browser, my camera, my barcode scanner, my inventory tool, my game system, and my media player – music and video. I use it with headphones or in a cradle wired to the stereo in my car.

Anyway, one of the indispensable components of my Fuze (and of my Tilt, my 8525, my 8125, my MPX220, my SMT5600, and a host of Compaq-then-HP Ipaqs before it) is a Microsoft application called Voice Command. It comes standard with some phones and PDAs these days, but I’ve been using it since it came out as a standalone product.

And, just like VoiceOver, if I want it to,Voice Command will tell me the name of the song that’s playing and who’s performing it. And it’s been doing this, as I said, since 2003.

What’s more, it’ll do this if I simply ask it to by saying "what song is this?" It’ll also play music that I ask for by artist, album, or genre, even genres that I’ve made up: "Play The Beatles," "Play Pet Sounds," "Play 80’s Hair Band Crap That I Wish I Didn’t Actually Own." I can control other functions by voice as well, launching programs, making phone calls, asking it to read my email aloud, tell me the time, etc.

The recognition itself is surprisingly good, though, like all such applications, when it misunderstands, it does so  in ways that most humans would not. Humans that have some interest in maintaining a polite and orderly society that is.

A few years ago, just after the film Walk the Line came out, my ever-malleable consumerism sent me on a Johnny Cash kick.

<tangent> It was around this same time that, for a brief period, I had two WinMo devices. One of them was playing music, Johnny Cash singing "Folsom Prison Blues." The other one, in my pocket, was making phone calls without my knowledge. It had decided, for some unfathomable reason, to call a friend and colleague of mine who works at the Smithsonian’s National Air & Space Museum. I’ll call her "Victoria Portway", A) because that name has a certain Jane Austen ring to it and sounds like someone who would work in an important place, and 2) because that’s actually her name. It was only after leaving more than two minutes of me singing at the top of my lungs along with the late Mr. Cash on her voice mail that I realized what had happened. Now, to this day, Vicki insists she never got any such message. At the time, I suspected she was just saying that because we were just good enough friends that she didn’t want to humiliate me. Now, a few years on, I suspect it’s because we’re considerably better friends, and she’s waiting for just the right moment. I live in constant fear. </tangent>

Anyway, in addition to picking up some Cash CD’s, I bought the soundtrack to the film, because I thought Joaquin Phoenix did a pretty credible job with the singing. (This was back when Phoenix himself was somewhat involved in polite and orderly society and not reinventing himself in awkward Letterman moments.) I’d ripped the soundtrack to my media player (my phone, probably the 8125 at that point), and wanted to listen to it next time I was in the car. I keyed the mic and said, clearly, "Play Joaquin Phoenix."

Voice Command confirms your choices with an audible response in a vaguely female voice. In this case, then, "she" said "The Wondermints" and started playing one of their albums.

I tried again. "Play Joaquin Phoenix."

"The Beach Boys" she said, and off she went.

"No", I said, then keyed the mic again. "Play  Joaquin Phoenix."

"Fruit Bats", came the response, and the music.

I laughed at that one and dove back in. "Play  Joaquin Phoenix."

"Please repeat."

I thought this was a good sign. "Play  Joaquin Phoenix."

"Death Cab for Cutie."

What?!?! "Play  Joaquin Phoenix!"


"Play  Joaquin Phoenix!"

"The Moody Blues."

"Play  Joaquin Phoenix!"

"Apples in Stereo."

"Play  Joaquin Phoenix!"

"The Flaming Lips."

At this point, I started to lose it a little, wondering just when the passive-aggressive little woman who lives in my phone had started to hate me.

"For the love of all that is holy, PLAY JOAQUIN PHOENIX!"

"The Carpenters." (Yeah, I know, shut up.)

I could have given up. I could have simply said "Play Walk the Line – Soundtrack" and gotten the music I’d asked for. Instead, I thought it might be helpful to start giving Mr. Phoenix middle names.

"Play Joaquin ***ing PHOENIX!!!"

"Fountains of Wayne."

I tried other additions, profane and scatalogical, to no avail. She kept coming back with seemingly senseless choices, delivered with icy digital patience. She listed artists that I didn’t even know I had. At one point, she launched a game of Solitaire, which I read as her playing HAL9000 to my Dave Bowman and suggesting that I "…take a stress pill."

I thought about throwing the phone out the window. I thought about just unplugging it and listening to the radio. I thought about pulling over and having a good cry.

Then it hit me. (Not literally, though I wouldn’t have been surprised.)

I’d been pronouncing the name properly. "Wah-keen Fee-nix."

What if … what if I said it wrong?

I took a deep breath, and, as clearly as I could, said "Play Joe-Ackin Puh-Ho-nix."

I’ll swear to my dying day that I heard her smiling as she said, perfectly clearly, "Joaquin Phoenix."

I tried it a dozen times to be sure, and it was conclusive: she knows how to say it, she just doesn’t understand it when she hears it.

They say the biggest challenge in any relationship is communication, and that was a watershed day for us.

So, Apple, there you have it. My music player talks to me, and it was doing that 6 years before yours.

And it listens.

And, sometimes, just once in a while, it drives me into fits of screaming apoplexy.

Let’s see your fancy new Shuffle do that.

Thanks to David @ FuzeMobility for the post that brought this to my attention: And for his closing sentence in that piece that I so desperately wish I’d come up with first: "Voice Command has been out a few years now and comes standard on the Fuze so it’s nice to see that Apple finally invented it."

Posted in Egocentric | 13 Comments


I’m unemployed for the first time in 12 years.

My group, the Microsoft studio responsible for Flight Simulator, Train Simulator, and ESP, was closed in January. My severance package included 60 days’ paid leave with recruiting support to find a position elsewhere in Microsoft. I looked at a number of job descriptions, most of which started with a question, something like "Are you passionate about integrating SQL server with dynamic .PHP calls and cross-referenced bubble-sorted data groups with an eye for increasing performance as much as 4%?" At this point, my answer to that is a respectfully sighed "…no, I’m just not." (But ask me again when the money runs out.)

Yesterday was day 60, and I turned in my cardkey, my parking passes, and my belov’d corporate American Express Card, sauntering off into uncertainty with a distinct lack of fanfare.

My last break was a mere 18 hours (I had to formally quit one job before the next company could make me an offer without violating a non-compete agreement) back in the summer of ’97. If you don’t count that, then my run was even longer – about 21 years.

If you include part-time work, then my history goes further still: I got my first job when I was 14, which was 26 years ago.

Instead of working in a field and "picking berries and building character," my dad’s suggestion, I was a professional musician, believe it or don’t. I was a drummer, accompanying my friend Tom Gire, a piano playing prodigy who remains the best keyboardist I’ve ever heard. We worked the restaurant circuit, entertaining diners eating Sunday brunch at Andy’s Auburn Station and dinner at Jabingo’s, playing for tips, and, in the case of Jabingo’s, barbecued pork sandwiches.

Tom and I threw ourselves into the rock star lifestyle with rebellious teenage abandon. After our moms dropped us off, we’d jam sedately through a set list that included Tommy Dorsey, Count Basie, and, when we thought we could get away with it, Bobby Hebb. And the groupies … I can still feel that tingle at the base of my neck that I’d get whenever some babe would catch my eye, and, with a wink and a smile, send her great-grandson up to the piano to drop a quarter in the jar.

Since then, I’ve held the following positions (many of which have overlapped):

  • Actor
  • Security Guard
  • Day Care Worker
  • Radio Voice Talent
  • Mailman
  • Emergency Medical Technician
  • First Aid / CPR Instructor
  • Police Officer
  • Emergency Communications Specialist
  • Database Developer
  • IT Consultant
  • Senior Technical Support Engineer
  • Toy Store Proprietor
  • Technical Support Instructor
  • Sr. IT Technician
  • Software Test Engineer
  • Beta Coordinator
  • Notary Public
  • Software Test Lead
  • Subject Matter Expert
  • Software Design Engineer in Test
  • Community Evangelist
  • Business Development Manager

The last two blend together a bit and describe my final two and a half years at Microsoft, and, in combination, encompassed a lot of different roles: writer, editor, web publisher, public speaker, media spokesman, networker, researcher, amateur marketeer, etc.

Clearly, I don’t know how to do just one thing.

I’m utterly baffled by what my friend Jim calls the "40 years and a gold watch" crowd. Barbara Sher’s books call me a "scanner", Ned Hallowell’s books tell me I have Attention Deficit Disorder*, conventional wisdom tells me that I just lack discipline and my friend Glenn simply calls us "Swans." My personal favorite came from my friend and "other mother" Donna who has no idea the gift she gave me when she called me a "Renaissance Man."

The tagline on my résumé closes with "…I’m looking for a new place to hang at least some of my many hats." And therein lies the challenge, and the promise.

While I am seriously considering a couple of "real jobs", the kind where I’d be employed by somebody and paid by them to go to where they are and do the things they tell me to for eightish hours a day, those are the exception – not many places are actively advertising for world-class-hyphenates.

In the meantime, then, I’m trying an experiment: As of today, I am now officially a full-time part-timer, a freelance thinker working from a home for which I hope to continue to be able to keep paying.

I’m consulting (in some cases as a volunteer at this point) for groups like the Museum of Flight, the National Aviation Hall of Fame, the BRAVO 369 Flight Foundation and Topgun Simulations, as well as a couple of other ventures (including one that I’m starting with two close friends) that aren’t quite ready to be discussed. And, above all, I’m finally, and I hope fully, committed to writing, something that the universe has been patiently screaming at me to do more of for years.

Yesterday, I came up with a daily schedule for my new job, one that specifically delineates periods of writing, as well as email, mucking about on Facebook, and semi-aimlessly surfing the web. I wasn’t sure if it would work, but, as I write this, I’m actually 19 minutes ahead of schedule.

Not bad for my first day.

*-For the record, it’s not that I have a deficit of attention, it’s that I have a surplus of tangents.

Posted in Egocentric | 5 Comments

Australia – Before and After

More proof that the smartest thing we (Microsoft) ever did while building the Flight Simulator series was to build it as a platform, enabling third-party developers to build things like this.

Or at least do our best to stay out of their way … enjoy this utterly stunning before and after footage of a virtual Austraila.

(And watch for the blink-or-you’ll-miss-it Rapide!)
FTX – Enter a whole new world! from Orbx on Vimeo.

Posted in Flight Sim Centric | 1 Comment

Just Call Me Roger Windsock

The latest ephemeral film added to my personal collection is this classic from the U.S. Air Force about an obsessive airport kid. Animated by the well-respected Gene Deitch,  in a Chuck-Jones-meets-Quisp-Cereal sort of style, the film is a love letter to the airplane, showing how it allowed the rest of the world to come see how we live. (The " … and bask in our obvious superiority!" is mercifully left unspoken.)

Listen for the "Roger, Roger" joke at least 30 years before Airplane!

This post, like the film,  was produced by the Jam Handy Organization.

Click the pic.

Posted in Fly-y | 2 Comments