One of the reasons I like my dentist is the way they greet me when I come for an appointment. I walk in the door and the cheerful woman says "hello Nelson," like I'm a welcome guest. It immediately sets me at ease, takes the edge off the tooth-scraping to come. I only come in twice a year and they've recognized me from my second visit. It seems so natural it never occurred to me that kind of greeting takes effort.
How do they do it? They took my photo my first visit. And they only have two people coming in at any given time. So the receptionist knows to look up the next appointments, and look at their pictures, and create a friendly moment. So simple, so pro.
I've never seen any other customer service do this simple thing. Not my accountant, not my lawyer, not my doctor; there I'm some anonymous schlub who has to identify himself. Opportunity lost.
A few tech companies try to create this sense of personal service. Uber is awesome this way, from the greeting from your private driver to the rock star moment you walk out without handling payment. Square Wallet creates this feeling too; buy coffee with just your name. Great way to create customer good will.
Astronomy enthusiasts have an expression: first light. That’s the first view through a new telescope, the thrilling moment when something you’ve long anticipated, maybe built by hand, is finally real. First light is the beginning of a telescope’s life. It’s cherished for the excitement but it’s also a way to honor all the work, use, and joy to come.
I have a problem with first light. I love the experience of building something new, the moment when a bunch of abstract work and thinking results in the first tangible, visible product. I’m pretty good at achieving first light, at exploring a new idea or area and figuring out how to get something working.
But first light should be the beginning of an endeavour, not the end. Real products come from months or years of polishing, refining, tuning. Astronomers enjoy the thrill of first light through a new telescope, but real astronomy comes from folks like William Herschel or JLE Dryer spending years using those telescopes to systematically catalog the skies. Years of minute, careful work; ultimately rewarding, but terribly repetitive and fiddly.
I don’t have much patience for consistent finishing work. And since my last full time job (in 2006!) I haven’t had requirements to finish things, to turn random software experiments into real usable artifacts. And so I have a string of half-finished prototypes not worth showing people. I find that intensely frustrating.
A few months back we bought a house in Grass Valley, CA. We’re now got the house pretty well set up and have some idea what it’s like. Mostly it’s awesome. I really like the area. And I’m loving being in a big, spacious, quiet place with privacy and calm. San Francisco was really getting me down, so crowded and noisy and aggro. Nevada County is worlds away from all that and very comfortable. I’ve ended up spending a lot more time at the new place than I originally expected, mostly because it’s just so pleasant. My big decision yesterday evening was whether to watch the sunset from the hot tub or set up the telescope to look at Io’s shadow transiting Jupiter.
I’ve gotten to know the area pretty well and there’s a lot more depth than I originally expected. Grass Valley and Nevada City are a surprisingly sophisticated enclave for rural California. There’s a lot of independent tech oriented folks up here, some working full time (typically remotely) and some semi-retired. I was fortunate to be able to join the Nevada City Hackathon last month and met a lot of great people.
We’ve had a few guests come and stay for a couple of nights which has been great. We’ve got a really comfortable guest bedroom, a big social kitchen, and plenty of relaxing quiet. My hope is that more friends from the Bay Area will want to come up and spend some time with us.
Grass Valley has a good dark night sky so I’ve been learning about backyard astronomy. I’ve found a few things that seem good, maybe some of these make a good gift idea for a friend of yours. I’m a rank beginner; these gifts are probably not appropriate for someone who already knows what they’re doing. Many of my choices came from recommendations from the Heretic’s Guide.
Ken and I have bought a house in Grass Valley, CA, off Ridge Road near Slate Creek. We’re not leaving San Francisco, we’re keeping two houses, but we expect to be spending a whole lot of time up at the new place. It’s a big house with plenty of room for guests; if you know me, you’re welcome to come visit!
Why Grass Valley? Ken and I have talked about a country house for a few years now, far enough away to feel like we were getting out of SF but still within driving distance. We also wanted something in the Sierra foothills and with a good GA airport; that quickly narrowed it down to around Grass Valley. It helps that both Grass Valley and Nevada City next door are relatively big with good restaurants, grocery stores, etc. It’s a pretty sophisticated place for rural California.
And life’s good in the country. It’s warm in summer and cool but not too snowy in winter. There’s deer. And friendly neighbors. Not terribly expensive, we were able to find a very nice house with a lot of space and privacy. It’s pretty great, really all that’s missing is the vibrancy and opportunity of a big city. I’ve quickly come to appreciate the beauty and relaxed life in the country. My hope is by spending some time away from San Francisco I’ll appreciate what the city has to offer all the more.
I’m one of those people who wake up at first light. In the summer when that’s 5:30am, it’s not so great. A simple sleep mask really helps in letting me get a proper sleep. There’s a zillion options, the key feature of this one is that it has little cups for your eyes so you can blink without brushing your eyelashes. Much less annoying that way.
My 40th birthday is coming up and I’m kind of freaked out about it. I’m no cult-of-youth guy and have a healthy fatalistic sense of the course of human life. There’s just no denying that 40 is a pretty big turning point, particularly physically.
Happily I’ll be spending my actual birthday in France at a fabulously decadent restaurant, so at least I’ll be getting a good start on my gout.
I just had a remarkably good service experience signing up for the JP Morgan Select Card (from Chase). I don't normally write testimonials for banks, but credit cards are a necessary evil and this one seems pretty good.
The key feature for me is it contains a European-style transaction chip for Chip and PIN processing. If you've ever been a poor American trying to use a gas pump or train ticket machine in Europe and been unable to do it, it's because the US credit card is way behind the times and doesn't contain a chip. Well, a few do now; this card has both a chip and a traditional magnetic stripe. Unfortunately it does not have a PIN, that'd be too standard, they call it "chip and signature". Which means I still sign at a restaurant, but in theory an unattended machine will just approve the transaction without the PIN. We'll see.
The ordinary credit card features seem OK too. No foreign transaction fees. Some sort of reward points system whose details I didn't look into. Lots of consumer protections, etc. $95/year and 13.24% APR on purchases.
I had awful service from Virgin America recently. A flight cancellation, a software system disaster, and many mistakes from agents on the ground all worked together to make a truly awful travel day. I like what Virgin is trying to do, but until they get their act together after their disastrous switch to a new reservation systems I suggest avoiding them.
On Nov 2 Ken and I had Main Cabin Select tickets from JFK to SFO. That morning I called and paid extra for first class upgrades (score!). Then two hours before departure, the flight was cancelled. The scene at JFK was chaos because Virgin has just that week changed its online reservation system and it wasn't working. The staff didn't know how to use it, the system didn't work, customers were sitting on the floor waiting for things to get straightened out.
Rebooking us was beyond the JFK staff's ability to cope. The nice woman at the desk kept saying "we have this flight, do you want it?" and then spending ten minutes trying to book it, only to find some other agent had grabbed the seats while she was typing. She finally rebooked us on a different airline. Only they booked it wrong, twice, and I spent 90 stressful minutes going between terminals three times trying to get the flight booked correctly.
I will say the agent we talked to was pleasant and professional. She just was unequipped to make their own software work. And then they were so stressed and rushed they kept screwing up the booking on a different airline. Poor service is de rigeur for airlines but Virgin America claims to be something different. Sadly it wasn't last month.
Ken and I are headed to New York for the second half of October. No particular reason, just to hang out and see friends and eat well and maybe see a show or two. If you're in New York or on your way through, drop me a note and we'll get together! Recommendations for restaurants and things to do are also welcome. We'll be staying down in SoHo.