This isn’t how Amazon customer support is supposed to work

My brand new Echo stopped working recently. At some point it was fine, then it lit up all blue (usually a firmware update), then it stopped responding. I did all the troubleshooting stuff: the white dot on the back is fine, the mute button lights red so power works, I hit reset…

Email customer support

Hm… 4-5 days later, no reply

Call customer support

Wow, that was prompt. Kudos where they are due.

What customer support did

  • CS: can you unplug the device and …
  • Me: as noted I did that. I also hit reset.
  • CS: can you hit reset
  • Me: um… I did that. I also know power is working since the red mute button lights up.
  • CS: so no response?
  • Me (getting frustrated): correct. As noted. No response, power works, I suspect bad firmware update.
  • CS: let me transfer you to tech support
  • Me: (wondering… weren’t you tech support??)

10-15 minutes being on hold, new CS guy

  • CS: (walks through a few question… should have been in the ticket already)
  • Me: it doesn’t work, I suspect a bad firmware update
  • CS: we will need to replace it. Keep the power adapter and drop the Echo off at UPS.
  • Me: in what box? With what label?
  • CS: put it in the box you got it.
  • Me: (incredulous) you expect people to keep the shipping box?
  • CS: yes.
  • Me: (upset, this isn’t Comcast after all) are you serious? I am going to take my Echo to UPS, drop it off in packaging I don’t have, then wait a few days and then you send another one out? This is Amazon, this is unacceptable.
  • Me: (off to write a blog post and blast Amazon on Facebook and Twitter before returning the Echo and buying a new Google device)

What should have happened

As soon as CS #2 understands that the device is broken:

  • CS: I see that you ordered this on Prime Now. What is a convenient time for us to drop a new Echo off and pick up the old unit?
  • Me: 6-8 PM tonight would be great, you folks are so awesome!!
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Google Instant Apps

Of all of the nifty things I saw during the Google I/O webcast last week the most game-changing to me was Instant Apps. In the old days of Web 1.0 and Web 2.0 you could navigate around the Internet happy and free. There were a few walled gardens (e.g. pay-sites) but for the most part as a consumer as long as you had a browser you could go anywhere. Then we all moved to phones and wham we hit a walled garden. In order to shop at Whole Foods I need the Whole Foods app. See something great you want to buy online; download the app for that. Pay for parking from your phone; I have six apps (!) on my phone for this depending on which lot I happen to drive into.

This is crazy. As Ellie Powers, Google PM, said “I don’t really have the Buzzfeed app on my phone… but I might want to watch a quick video”. Google has stepped fully into this fray with Instant Apps.

What is an Instant App

From a consumer point of view it’s a wonderful new way to get pieces of an application delivered to your phone at just the right time. Imagine you are in a grocery store and there is a QR code (or bar code or similar). You can the code and the coupon you wanted is on your phone. No need to download a special app, the app just arrived on your phone in about the same amount of time as downloading a website would.

No more fumbling around the App Store looking for the app, signing in, fumbling around for a credit card, and finally deciding “never mind”.

It just works…. probably

For Developers

It’s not clear yet how much work this will take for developers to enable. According to the docs it might take “as little as a day to re-factor your app”. I assume that is for apps that are fairly simple and have very straightforward User Interfaces (UI) e.g. a shopping app, a music app, video apps, etc.

What this means for the rest of us

Yeah! It’s time for Web 3.0!! But this time we will get all the power of our mobile devices, more security, and all the graphic goodness of native apps. If done right this means we can break out of the walled gardens we’ve lived in since 2007 with iPhone apps.

There are lots of caveats to this story of course, the ones that come to mind:

  1. This is Google only. Will Apple do something similar but not the same so we continue to live in this fragmented world? If Google were truly serious about making this work they would open source the deep-links required to allow these instant apps to be cross-platform (which would still require two codebases, but hey, that’s the same as today)
  2. It’s not clear *when* this will launch in the real world. 2017 seems likely.

Me, I’m excited for this development.

Book: The Coral Thief

I just finished reading The Coral Thief. I’m not entirely sure how to classify this book. It’s not a thriller, it’s not just historical fiction, and it’s certainly not a mystery or even a love story. Well… it is a love story of a kind in which the author clearly loves Paris.

The plot is fairly simple: boy meets woman on a stagecoach, woman robs boy, boy falls in love with woman. The rest is fairly boilerplate and would be a dull slog if not for the fact that the writing is compelling, the characters at times rise above average, and the historical setting of post-Napoleon Paris is enchanting. At times the characters are cliché – the tough French inspector (Javert apparently), the mysterious stranger, the ex-royal now turned thief, etc. You’ve seen these characters before. But the story holds together for all that as it’s stitched with lovely images of Paris before the Paris you know now. You will still know the Marais, but now instead of a tourist-thronged mess it was a warren of thieves and beggars. You will be amazed to hear of people washing clothing in the Seine.

I recommend seeing “Midnight in Paris” before reading this book. It will help set the right tone.

Iceland is just great

Every time I read an article about Iceland I think “how wonderful that they keep doing this”. Truly:

  1. The Pirate Party is taking the lead in national politics. After the banking crisis they elected a comedian as Prime Minister.
  2. When told they had to take out disastrous loans in the banking crisis they more or less said “nope” and walked away. All the articles at the time said Iceland would never recover and they should have taken the Irish approach and mortgaged their future. Turns out Iceland is doing just fine, thanks.
  3. “Switzerland of Bits” is a great idea. Be the haven for free Internet traffic.
  4. Huge culture of healthy living which is tough given I don’t recall seeing a lot of vegetable farms out there.

I looked into moving to Iceland at one point but somehow couldn’t get the family over the whole “it’s dark all winter” thing. Maybe I can get some sort of deal where I live there for 6 months at a time and then Italy during the winter. Who knows. If some tech company there needs an experienced leader who speaks great English (zero Icelandic) who can commute from Italy/Spain/Portugal in the winter let me know.

Converting from WordPress to Ghost

Over the past week or so I’ve become intrigued by a relatively new blogging platform, Ghost. I’m a big fan of WordPress both in terms of what you can do with it and a fan of the company. That said I always want to learn new things, check out the bright shiny new thing (e.g. when I moved to Tumblr), and understand the technology behind it. I’m not comfortable moving my primary site to Ghost yet so I am working on a few side projects. What I’ve learned so far:

  1. Ghost is very light. And by that I mean both speedy (good) and lacking features (uh oh). Ghost is sort of the Notepad as compared to Word. That may be good or bad depending on your need.
  2. Ghost is easy to install. There aren’t many settings to mess with (or mess up).
  3. Installing Ghost themes is so far out of reach (for me). For many this would be a deal-breaker; for me this is a nice learning chance.
  4. Very few plugins. This is where WordPress really shines. Want to change your blog? Great, find one of the million plugins that do something for you. I bet Ghost will begin to see this ecosystem soon. There are two reasons: first, Ghost is built on node.js and node.js is the current shining star in the geek galaxy and second, there is a gap in plugins so developers will start to earn money filling that gap.
  5. Ghost supports markdown. I’m a markdown junkie as I am *done* with tools that corrupt or change my formatting when I move my content around.

Bottom Line

Unless you like tinkering with things or you are okay with a minimalist blog, Ghost isn’t for you. It’s getting better but if you want something full-featured stick with WordPress… for now. I think it’s good for everyone that there is a new choice and a team thinking about things differently.


  1. I moved to I like the name better and think I will start writing a weekly topic or two on sports again. Daily was killing me, kudos to those who are able to publish every… single… day…
  2. I started as a place to park various side projects. It was getting rough to bring up a new site for each new project.

Book – Ghost Train to the Eastern Star

I read Ghost Train to the Eastern Star a few years back. Unfortunately I couldn’t remember what exactly it was about and whether I liked it or not. Being a fan of Paul Theroux I decided that I had the time and I wouldn’t mind reading another book about trains (aside: reading travel books about trains is almost as relaxing on trains).

The book takes the reader from London to the farthest corners of Japan (north and south) largely by train. There are a few ferries in the middle and a few airplane rides when necessary but most of this book is viewed from a train. And it’s lovely. The writing is evocative and it makes the idea of sitting unwashed on a train for seven days across Russia interesting.

Highly recommended if you enjoy travel books.

My Notes

I kept more notes than usual in this book as the vocabulary was challenging at times without being overly pompous or unnecessary.

  • “Without change there can be no nostalgia”. Lovely phrase I captured in the book. We all like nostalgia but without trying new things, failing, moving, and trying again then the past will be just like today.
  • “Yes, and mainly from scholars. Scholars need to validate the status quo, or they will lose their funding.” We all need to eat of course but recent articles point out that a) not much of what is considered science is read and b) much of what is considered science is not replicable. Which means that scholars are basically validating the status quo.
  • Orotund: had to look this up. It means full, round, imposing.
  • frotteurism: doing a nasty bump-and-grind. Basically what perverts do on subways.
  • Hokkien-speaker: a Chinese dialect in wide use across Asia.
  • adumbrated: to produce a faint image or trace of something.
  • A joke about the old Soviet Union (which also works for Comcast by the way): “You know the joke?” she said. “A woman wants to buy a car. She is given a voucher and told, ‘It will be delivered in ten years.’ ‘Morning or afternoon?’ she asks. ‘Why do you want to know?’ She says, ‘Because the plumber is coming in the morning.’ It was like that.”

Transformation tourism

Merely looking at something almost never causes change. Tourism is fun, but rarely transformative.

If it was easy, you would have already achieved the change you seek.

Change comes from new habits, from acting as if, from experiencing the inevitable discomfort of becoming.

As usual I found something good in Seth Godin’s blog today. This is akin to the old line about the definition of insanity as doing the same thing and expecting different results. This is also very much the difference between being a tourist vs. living somewhere.

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Bots aren’t everything

Really nice post about bots, UI, mobile efficiency, and much more at I recommend reading the entire article but if you are pressed for time let me try to summarize:

  1. Bots are hot right now.
  2. Bots are not the final answer to interacting with our devices. The article points out several nice examples but fundamentally there are some things that are easier done *without* conversation.
  3. Good bots, the bots coming in the next generation will offer data-dense options. In other words when I contact Pagliacci Pizza I don’t want to chat back and forth about a pizza; just give me a quick menu.
  4. Good bots are integrated e.g. payments are simple, I don’t need a new app for a city every time I travel, etc.

One of the examples people should think about is from the early days of games on PCs e.g. Maria, Hammarabi, Zork, etc. These games were fun. We all played them. And yet when you could add graphics and make the game deeper, richer, and more informationally-packed the games got better. This means bots isn’t an either-or game: you don’t have to accept that bots are text-only and only about conversations. WeChat is clearly kicking butt and taking names in this realm; I look forward to Facebook, Telegram, and others joining the space and getting it right.

On my wishlist – the snap-together, desktop trebuchet by Michael Woods

Trebuchette – the snap-together, desktop trebuchet by Michael Woods — I want one The ultimate desktop tool

Source: Trebuchette – the snap-together, desktop trebuchet by Michael Woods — I want one | Bricin

I originally wrote about this desktop trebuchet five years ago. Hard to believe that a) it was five years ago and b) I still have this thing on my wish list. As I consider heading back to “the workplace” it seems I will desperately need something like this.

The good news? These folks now offer a ballista and catapult too!


Going the wrong direction

Source: Microsoft Outlook comes to Android Wear smartwatches | The Verge

This is typical of most smart watch apps out there. You have a successful product on the phone so voila! put the same interface on the watch but make it small.

This is wrong. Watches are not phones. There are three very simple reasons for this:

  1. The screens are tiny therefore the fundamental way of interacting with data should not be text.
  2. Input methods are tiny therefore the fundamental way of interacting with data should not be text.
  3. Watches sit on your wrist which means you get one-handed interactions only therefore the fundamental way of interacting with data should not be text.

See a trend there? This feels like 2007 when companies with lovely desktop apps were confronted by the smart phone revolution and simply ported their desktop app to the phone only to learn that hey, the form factor and customer scenarios are different. Companies learned.

Now we are seeing smart watches on the rise (albeit slowly). And we are all going to go through the same exercise of figuring out what watches are good for and what they aren’t. Here is a quick list of the good¹:

  1. Watches measure things. Pulse, distance, etc.
  2. Watches can notify you unobtrusively. This is nice, a short haptic (buzz buzz) on your wrist for an event is really much nicer than the same buzz, dig your phone out of your pocket, check the screen, and decide the interruption wasn’t important anyway.
  3. Using #1 and #2 above watches can remind you to do things e.g. Apple’s watch reminds me to stand up and move around every hour. Yeah! It actually works and is something better than the phone. We have a winning scenario!

The smart phone isn’t going away

Too often when a new device looms the idea is that the older generation will disappear. It won’t. But some of the uses today for the smart phone will decline simply because the new, in this case the smart watch, will do a better job of it. An example – many people run today with their iPhone. This isn’t natural. We’ve bought all sorts of armbands and clothing with oddly-sized pockets simply to carry our phones to record the workout. With a watch this is no longer useful. I anticipate as watches get strong enough to do Bluetooth music that the phone will disappear from workout-land. That’s a good thing.

So the phone will stay in your pocket (or purse or backpack) more often. But it won’t be gone since you cannot effectively create text via a watch. And yes, the person who will reply “but you can dictate a message”… go try that a few times, especially in a crowded area and tell me how that goes. If you’ve ever seen photo-bombing welcome to the new world of message-bombing. Although I will admit to doing a few phone calls from my watch just so I could use the words “Dick Tracy”.

So what should apps do

Smart watch apps should focus on the scenarios that real watches do and extend them. Reminders are great. Counting things works really well e.g. take a stop watch and extend that in new ways. Tracking biometrics is an obvious win; now what can you do with all that new sensor data? Payments, ID, airline check-ins, and other simple transactions are obvious – why do I need to lug out my phone or gasp my wallet to do something simple². Games might work but the current crop is completely violating the first law of smart watches i.e. “it’s not a miniature phone”. I can imagine games that use some of the motion of the arm somewhat like the Nintendo Wii used those goofy controllers we all used for a year or two while pretending we were really getting exercise.

There’s a million other scenarios out there but first-and-foremost start with the idea that this is a) very new and interesting, a computer on your wrist and b) something very old, it’s a watch, what can we learn from hundreds of years of watches.


¹ Obviously not a complete list. If I had the complete list I’d make a bajillion dollars writing apps that relied on the complete list.

² Using Apple’s payment system at the grocery store on my watch is wonderful. I love it. The other day the payment machine glitched and I had to swipe the watch twice. The checker apologized and I smiled and gushed “are you kidding me, I just paid for my food with my watch… this is MAGIC”. It truly is.