Geoffrey Meredith
Thoughts on Technology


Over the last couple of weeks, I had a chance to "experience" the customer service of a Canadian retailer, FutureShop. I have ordered from their website many times over the last couple of years. They sometimes have pretty good prices and in most cases, they offer free shipping.

My latest order was for 3 bottles of Sodastream syrup. They sold these at list price but they offered free shipping. The particular flavours that we want are not available locally so the free shipping made it worth using FutureShop.

The box arrived and upon looking inside, there was only 1 of the three bottles of syrup. I checked to make sure that I didn't get something wrong and then sent off a message to FutureShop customer service. I explained in detail that I had, what I later learned, a "short shipment".

The first response from FutureShop was and offer of a RMA number. I had to explain to them that there was nothing wrong with the one bottle that I got, and that I just didn't get everything that I ordered. They apologized asked for some more information and said that they had escalated the issue and I would hear from someone in 1-2 days. After waiting for 5 days, I asked for an update and was told curtly that my issue had been esculated and would get a response withing 1-2 days. I complained that it had already been 5 days. I was then told that this esculation was just done that day and it would be an additional 2 days for a response. After 11 days had elapsed, I again asked for an update, stating that I thought that their support had been a horrible experince and that I would be contacting the credit card company to see if they could prompt FutureShop into action. I also mentioned I would tweet my experience. The only response from the support people was an apology for the delay but no real information.

I then tweeted:

I've been stonewalled by @FutureShop for 11 days to get a response about a shipment that did not deliver what I ordered. Terrible support.

I got a twitter response from @FutureShop asking for my order number.Later that day I got a call from someone at FutureShop's head office saying that everything had been cleared up. The product that I had paid for and not received was refunded. That seemed reasonable and she even offered a 10% discount off my next purchase. That was all I was looking for but it took 12 days and a lot of frustration to get to that point.

Today, after verifying that I had gotten the refund, I went to order more syrup FutureShop. FutureShop had raised the price of that particular syrup from $6.99 (the list price) to $11.99, almost double the list price. I send a message to their customer support asking if this was an error and after a couple of hours the response I got back was full of boilerplate but no actual answer. I give up! I'll find another source for this syrup.

From my experience with FutureShop, I see that they have two types of customer support. For questions that come in via their website they must have a high volume data center, like a call center, who's goal is to blast through customer support queries as quickly and cheaply as possible with no regard to being truly helpful. Of the 6 or so responses that I got from this data center, none really answered the question I had asked. I don't blame the people at the keyboards, I'm sure that this is the results of policies set by managers.

The second type of customer support is for social media. This is obviously handled in a more responsive and high level manner. Because this is done in public, they are taking much more care to handle issues quickly and thoroughly. This is how their more general customer service should be handled too. Obviously they do not understand the damage that their existing system is doing to their reputation. I am likely to avoid FutureShop in the future because I know if anything goes wrong, it will be painful to get things fixed.

(posted on 29 Mar 2012)

In 1998 we were living in San Francisco at the height of the dot com boom. We got one of the first residential DSL lines that PacBell started to roll out. It took them 2 full days to get it installed! I think that the initial price was $160/month for what today would be seen as a very slow connection. What was important was that it was always on -- at least if it didn't rain. Not only did we have a "fast", always-on connection to the internet, we could run our own internet services. We could replace our very expensive DellHost server that we were using at that time.

We built a beige box tower computer that had a 400MHz Celeron CPU on an Intel SE440BX-2 motherboard, 128MB of RAM, 10GB of disk space and running Debian Linux and call it Matrix. We ran a number of websites from Matrix., and well as personal websites and some sites for others. We created websites to play around with some early SEO techniques and even a bit of content farming. This went on for a couple of years until ISPs started complaining about putting web and email servers on residential connections and we finally had to go back to data center hosted servers. Once Matrix was retired as a production server it took up service as a development server for developing websites before pushed to a production server. Over the years it has it's RAM tripled up to a whopping 384MB and had it's version of Debian upgraded many times. It eventually was too slow to effectively be used as a development server and was retired from development service sometime around 2005.

Matrix still ran reliably so we started to use it to do regular backups of our production servers. We added a couple of hard drives in the years since then as our backup needs increased. It has run for the last 7 years constantly transferring data to and from production servers in data centers around the world and to NAS devices that we have on our local LAN.

I noticed this morning that it was having a DNS problem and that it had not done some of the backups it should have done. I traced the problem down, fixed it and restarted it's backup. The load was too much for it. After transferring a couple of gigabytes from our production servers Matrix crashed. Only the second or third time it has crashed in it's many years of service and only about the third reboot in about 6 years. It never recovered from that crash. The BIOS booted very slowly, RAM check was glacial and it only recognized 2 out the 4 IDE devices connected to it. Matrix halted displaying the dreaded "Operating System not found" error.

I spend an hour or so cleaning it out and attempting get the machine to boot off of different devices without success. So after 14 years of absolutely reliable service, Matrix has been powered down one last time.

(posted on 15 Nov 2010)

I received an email a while back that stated that I owned a certain .us domain name and that the sender owned the .com equivalent. The email offered to sell me that .com domain name for $100 and would use an escrow service to guarantee the transaction. On the surface, this would seem to be an attractive offer except for one thing: I already own that .com domain too!

While I won't waste my time following up on this, it did make me wonder about the "escrow service" that they would have suggested for this transaction. A scam in itself I would assume.

I do look at such email messages closely because sometimes they can be very useful. I had a similar situation where I owned a .us domain, got a message similar to today's message but I did not own the .com domain. A quick check showed that this particular .com has just been deleted (freed for new registration) and that the spammer would have just registered the domain and then sold it to me if I had responded. Instead, I just registered the domain myself. This has happened twice in the last couple of months!

(posted on 11 Aug 2009)

A few weeks ago, serendipity provided me an older, but quite serviceable Macbook.  I've never seriously exercised a Mac in my day to day life due somewhat to the steep buy-in cost but mostly because of inertia.  In that time period I've spent quite a bit of time building up Max (the network name for the Macbook) to match my needs in a notebook computer.  In addition, I decided to use it as the host computer for my new iPhone.  I've talked before about my dislike for iTunes and other problems I've had making Max usable in my life but this is only half of the story.

I have two fairly distinct uses for a notebook computer.  The first is similar to most people's use: Firefox gives me a window to the world.  I consume various media using Firefox or iTunes and indirectly via an iPhone.  I create a few documents or spreadsheets via Google Docs or Open Office. 

The second use for a notebook is less typical.  I write software and I need a complex set of tools to allow me to do that development.  While I still do ocational support of very old Windows desktop and server software that I developed in the 90's, I have been developing for Internet platforms almost exclusively for the last 12 years or so.  (With a few side tracks into the mobile world).  That development has been targeted toward Linux centric technologies with a primary focus on PHP, Ruby, and Python using MySQL.  To do that kind of development you need a development computer that supports these technologies.

OS X, with it's roots in BSD, would seem like a great platform for this.  A slick user interface with a familiar UNIXly environment under the skin was pretty enticing.  So with that, I started the process of getting all of these technologies working on Max.  I quickly found out that many of the software packages that I tried to install would not work with Tiger, OS X version 10.4, only one generation old.  So I upgraded to Leopard, the lastest version of OS X and only a month or so before the new Snow Leopard comes out.  (Interesting: there is no free upgrade to Snow Leopard for purchasers of Leopard just a month before shipping.  Microsoft would not get away with this for Windows.)  What also prompted the upgrade was the issues I was getting trying to install MySQL-python connector.

The archive and install upgrade of Leopard went well and I was pleased with the improvements.  But it didn't solve my MySQL-python issue.  It did allow me to install Aptana, my preferred development editor.  After much experimentation and many hours lost, I did get the MySQL-python connector working.  I've long been using PhpMyAdmin for administering MySQL.  It's so much easier than using a command line MySQL client.  That took many hours more.  Should have been 10 minutes.  The only pieces that were easy were the ones that were already installed and often to get other things installed, I needed to install a different version from the default Leopard version.  That leads to many copies of almost identical software scattered over the BSD/OSX Frankenstein file structure.  Each tool that I installed, complicated the situation.

In the end, I've given up trying to force my requirements on Max.  I'm sure that with a couple more weeks of work, I'd get it working the way that I want.  The thought struck me that at that point, I'd have a computer that meets my needs only as well as my 3 year old Dell notebook.  It might be a little faster but I cannot tell.  There is no software that I *need* OS X to run and lots of apps that while not critical, will not run on OS X.  My experience with OS X has not shown me any compelling reason to use it over Windows 7.  I understand that I'm not a tyical user and that there are many for whom OS X works well and might be ideal. 

I think that if I had been coming from OS X and trying out Windows 7, I'd likely have an overall similar experience.  In a lot of ways, OSX, Windows and Linux have become quite close in terms of features but they all differ in the details of how you get things done.  In the end, it comes down to personal preferences and experience as to what works best for an individual.

So my next "experiment" is to see what Max is like running Windows 7.  Will the hardware work better for me than the Dell with the same OS?  If nothing else, I can easily install the software that I need on it in a couple of hours, and it will hold me over until I figure out my next portable computing platform.  I've got Boot Camp and Windows 7 already setup.  That was easy.  Now to duplicate my desktop setup.

(posted on 6 Aug 2009)
Today's DDoS attack on Twitter highlights yet another reason why the Twitter approach to global communications is wrong.  One of the wonderful attributes of the Internet is that it provides a platform that for building distributed applications on.  Commercial operations repeatedly try to build centralized tools on this decentralized system.  These applications work at smaller scales but at a global scale, it is just not going to work well.  It will be brittle and susceptible to a single point of failure problems like DDoS attacks.
(posted on 6 Aug 2009)

I have upgraded my "new" macbook from Tiger to Leopard and it turns out have been a really good idea.  When using Tiger, I had this concept of OS X being really clunky.  I chalked that up to being new to the OS and not real failings in the operating system.

The most noticeable improvement for me is in the Finder's ability to browse remote Windows network drives.  Leopard's "Places" makes network drives much more accessible.  The WiFi menu is not so annoying as in Tiger where it would wait and do a rescan of available networks before it could come up.

A lot of functionality under Leopard just seemed more usable.  I am a bit surprised by this.  I regularly switch between Windows XP, Vista and Windows 7 and while there are differences, the basics just do not seem that different.  I'm sure that part of this is that I've been using Windows for over 20 years so a lot of it is just second nature to me.  I guess I'm not the idea switcher as I've got such depth of knowledge in Windows that using OS X is often frustrating to me.  Luckily Leopard seems less frustrating.  Looking forward to Snow Leopard!

(posted on 30 Jul 2009)

I have fairly actively avoided Apple products most of my life so diving into a Macbook/iPhone setup has been quite an experience.

First of all, I really like the iPhone 3GS.  I was really hoping that the Android platform would become a serious competitor to the iPhone but so far, it really hasn't so I've decided on the iPhone.  I haven't been disappointed by much on the iPhone.  The web browsing experience is fairly fast and usable.  This is a great improvement from Virgin Mobile's poky mobile browser on the LG Rumour that I had been using.

One of my biggest concerns was the need to use iTunes.  Past experiences with it have not been positive to the point that we've joked that the Windows version should be caught by anti-virus programs as a virus.  Now that I've got a Mac, I figured that iTunes should be a well integrated and highly functional part of the environment.  Sadly, iTunes seems to be as poorly written on OS X as it is on Windows.  I have not had so many problems with a mature piece of software from a major developer in my 30 years using and developing software for computers. 

My first adventure with iTunes was getting a library of 7000 songs onto the iPhone.  That would seem easy to do.  Import the files across the network from their repository on a Windows server.  I do this every time I install a media player, usually WinAmp, on any other computer on the network.  It generally tasks under an hour to go through the files, get the ID3 tags and build a database of songs.  So I started the process with the iTunes "Add to library" function.  It would have been nice to just enter the UNC path to the song archive but no, I had to use the finder to map a "disk" to the that location on the network and then access my songs from there.  Lots of mousing around where a few keystrokes should have done it. 

So the import began.  After a couple of hours, I realized that this was not going to be a quick process.  Not only that but the computer was completely unusable while iTunes with in this import process.  So I left it until the next morning.  Well it was "done" but it had only imported about half of the songs.  It looked like the network connection to the share where the files were located had "gone away".  The machine was on a wired connection to a rock solid network and server.  Not sure what went wrong but I started the process again.  Many hours went by and this time it looked like iTunes could see all of the songs.  They played well.

I was ready to start putting music on my new iPhone.  It was about 3 days old at that point and I had not been able to get any music on it.  So I started to sync with the iPhone.  I left it for awhile.  When I came back only about 500 songs had sync'd.  Why only those songs?  They all seemed to be songs that had poor ID3 information in them.  Maybe iTunes hadn't imported the songs well so I remove all the songs and started importing again.  Another night went by.  Next day, the iPhone sync seemed to import the same 500 songs only.

One thing that stuck me was that maybe iTunes didn't like it that I had imported songs but had told it to leave those songs on the network and not copy them to the Macbook.  So, remove all the songs out of iTunes, and start yet another import with copying of the songs.  Before I did that, I imported a small subsection of the music library and it seemed to get onto the iPhone without any problems.  The big import took about 2 days but when it was done, I was finally able to get my music on the iPhone.  Why this would not work well over the network, I have no idea.

Next task: figure what the "Apple Way" is with respect to podcasts.  Arg!

(posted on 28 Jul 2009)

I haven't used an Apple product seriously in a long time.  In the early 90's I worked on a project where I had to use a Mac for a few weeks but nothing since then other than occasionally borrowing a friend's Mac to check email, etc.

A couple of weeks ago I acquired an 18 month old Macbook with a dead hard drive.  When I got it you could hear the heads tearing themselves apart and then nothing.  A nice 320GB 7200 rpm drive fixed that up.  I decided to use this Macbook as my portable computer.  Replacing a 3 year old Dell.  The Dell still works great, especially with Windows 7 running on it but I thought that the Mac experience would be good to have.

My desktop environment is still a mix of various versions of Windows and Linux machines.  That makes six boxes under my desk.  It is also why I write this sitting outside, under a tree.  It just too hot in my office with all that equipment.

About a week after I got the Mac running, Rochelle and I decided to take the plunge and go for iPhones.  So I've a few steps into the Apple world.

It will be interesting to see if there are any surprises in this experiment.  I have been writing software in one form or another for over 30 years.  For many years DOS/Windows and UNIX/Linux have been the software development platforms of choice but over the last couple of years there has developed a large continent of Internet software developers who prefer Macs to do their development.  Good graphics and video manipulation tools have obviously had a lot to do with that but more hard core developers have been promoting the use of Macs.  It was particularly noticeable when I started doing some Ruby on Rails development a couple of years ago.  Windows was definitely not the ideal platform for Rails development.  I had been contemplating purchasing a Mac when this one fell in my lap.

I'm not going to go cold turkey into a Mac only environment.  I will still do most of my work on a Windows 7 based desktop machine but this new Mac will allow me to explore the possibilities.  I hope to replicate a basic software development environment on this machine for my mix of PHP, Rails, Python projects that I have either under active development or maintenance.

(posted on 27 Mar 2009)

This TechCrunch story talks about how it's hard to create a music streaming startup.  The problem here is that these startups are trying to bring the old radio business model onto the internet.  That model has the radio stations paying the music industry for promoting their product.  To pay for privilege, the radio industry has plastered there service with ads.  Online, where ad rates are much lower but the streaming rates are much higher, the economics just don't make sense.

Why should the old analog model that was based on the scarcity of government owned radio frequency bandwidth make any sense in the long tail enviornment of the internet where the only scarcity is attention.

So how should the music industry work on the internet?

The music industry should be paying startups to help them promote their artists.  This should be under the control of both the artists and the listeners.  Listeners should no longer be force feed what the music industry thinks that they should hear.  Alternatively, artists and labels should be able to be able to promote themselves as they feel the market might find interesting with a minimum of disintermediation.  Where those two spheres intersect, we get maximum value for listeners and ideal promotional opportunities for the music industry.

(posted on 13 Jul 2008)

I posted a job ad on yesterday that got quickly flagged and removed.  You don't get any indication as to why and ad was removed, just a link to a forum where you can post the details of your ad and get suggestions as to what you did wrong.  I had no idea as to why my ad was pulled so I spent some time on that forum looking for clues.  Nothing in the examples I saw there helped me understand what was wrong with my ad so I posted my ad to the forum and and awaited responses.  I only received one comment about my ad.  The comment was sarcastic and suggested that the compensation was only appropriate for a third world country.  Maybe I'm cheap or out of touch with salary expectations (or both) but I do think that there would have been people interested in responding to the ad.

The responses to a number of other rejected ads seem to expose either personal or political agenda.  People just didn't like the ads because they didn't properly address their political ideals, even if those political ideas were tangential to the posting.  It became obvious that to post in any particular category and city, you have to abide by mostly unwritten "community standards".  Who's standards are those "community standards"?  It's not the community of people in that city interested in that category, it's the much smaller community that comb through Craigslist ads looking for ones that do live up to their standards.  That to me sounds like a vigilante mob; the darker side of crowdsourcing. 

I don't think that it has to be this way.  I think there are technological solutions to improving moderation on websites like Craigslist.  Meta moderation and sophisticated algorithms that websites like,, or even the use of more descriptive flagging, can be added to raise moderation beyond the level of vigilantism.

Of course, this may be the way that Craigslist wants their website to behave.  It's certainly within their rights to do so.  I actually see an opportunity here for someone to build a better Craigslist.

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