How not to do voice prompts

Badly designed phone systems really tick me off.

For example, there’s my doctor’s office. The woman who does the prompts for their system is terrible at it. She speaks too slowly, frequently pauses to take a long breath, and drones on forever and ever about unimportant stuff instead of getting you right to the button options. Thankfully I have the options memorized at this point, but gads does that annoy me every single time.

But today’s rant is about my power company. I went to pay the electric and gas bill by phone, but I hate hate hate their phone system. Their customer service line includes a crapload of long pauses, which is odd considering it starts out asking (after a long pause following the obligatory Spanish prompt) whether you’re reporting a life-threatening emergency. But then it starts asking you, slowly, about what account you’re calling from. It takes about five seconds to rattle off four letters of my last name. Not exaggerating.

Once a full minute has gone by while I confirm which account I’m calling from, I get the prompts. But not button prompts, because being able to quickly hit a button would be stupid; they’re all voice response prompts. This system, unlike some nicer ones I’ve dealt with, only response to specific prompts and will slowly say each one for you. If you hear your option, you can blurt it out, but the system won’t hear you because it’s still too busy talking. So you have to wait through like six options before you can say “Billing and payments.” Enter round two. Again you get a long list of choices where if you interrupt, it will fall on metaphorical deaf ears. “Payments.” So begins round three. More options, more waiting. Finally, after three minutes have been wasted on this call so far, you can say “Pay my bill.”

Fourth round: Choose check or card. Yes, it’s the same stupid voice prompts and you have to wait. Then there’s the account part, which is actually the quickest part of this entire process. And then we hit the ultimate snag: the amount. This isn’t simple voice options, like paying your full balance or a different amount. Oh no. This piece of crap system asks what you want to do, then tells you in mind-numbing pointless detail how you would pay a different amount via the buttons, if you were so inclined, and gives you an example, even though all you’re trying to do is pay the full balance. But you can’t tell it “Full balance” because you have to wait for it to be done talking before it will listen.

This is not how to make an automated phone system. If you’re going to use voice for crap, let it be flexible from the outset by listening for key phrases so it can go straight through the endless prompts. Don’t tell someone how to enter an alternate amount unless they pick that option, for crying out loud. Let the caller interrupt, because their time is valuable and they don’t want to wait five more minutes to hear all the options they’re never going to choose.

What I want to know is, who designed this system, and where is the line to hit them with a bat?

My cable company gets this right. Cable company. Their prompt just asks what you need in a few words. I pay a couple of credit cards by phone, and those are easy too; one is all button-driven and is relatively quick, and the other is voice-driven but is even faster, because again it not only asks up front what I want, but it lets me interrupt at any time. So if they can do it, my electric company can too. How is this even hard?

And come on, if you have such a phone system, don’t use a slow voice! Never use a slow voice! Make it snappy. Build your system around speed, because speed matters. We have important things to do besides pay our bill, like rant about how an epic fail of a system makes it so hard to pay our bill.

This system is also “fun” when you’re reporting a power outage with a dying cell phone.

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You like me!

I have to admit, I’ve been pretty pumped about the reviews so far for Below. They’ve come in at a trickle, but they’ve been overwhelmingly positive so far, and it’s nice to see that people are actually enjoying the story I had to tell and how it was written. This is the first of my books to see any real publicity, so this is the first time I’ve gotten anything close to this in number of reviews.

Recently I mentioned that Dubious Quality did a nice writeup of the book, which was huge, but this week I was Googling around and discovered that about two weeks ago, a French website that reviews English-language books did a piece on Below. (Translation here.) It’s the first really lengthy review I’ve had, and it’s amazing. (At least the parts that survived Google Translate are amazing.) The coolest thing about it, to me, is that some of the things it talked about were things I’d tried to convey in the book. I kept thinking: “Yes! That’s what I was going for!”

Below sincerely loves dungeons. And this love is contagious.

That’s true. It’s so true. Well to be honest, I only have the right to say the first part is true, but I had really hoped the rest of it would be too.

Putting anything at all out into the world always comes with a heaping helping of self-doubt. When I published, I really had no idea what to expect in terms of how or whether people would connect to it, or if they’d think my writing was any good. But they’re saying nice things, and there’s still a big part of me that has trouble believing that. It’s wonderful and uplifting and humbling all at the same time.

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Good steak day

Last night (Sunday) I poked a bunch of holes in a nice 1 lb. ribeye steak and threw it in a gallon freezer bag with a good amount of Kikkoman teriyaki sauce. (I had to drive all over looking for a decent-sized bottle, though, because Wegmans only carries the small size like a bunch of pansies. Walmart was fresh out, though, and Target doesn’t seem to carry it at all, like a bunch of pansies. So I had to buy two small bottles from Wegmans. I didn’t actually use a full bottle; this was just for a backup.)

This evening, I fired up the grill and threw on the steak. But while the grill was heating I preheated the oven, warmed up a few tablespoons of leftover bacon grease in the microwave, and dumped the grease into the bag with a bunch of crinkle-cut French fries. After coating the fries thoroughly I laid them out on a cookie sheet lined with foil (for easy cleanup) for cooking in the oven. They finished cooking while the steak rested. If you’ve never tried this, do yourself a favor and do so; but don’t think the bacon grease will stand in for salting the fries properly, because you still have to do that.

I was nervous that I might have slightly overcooked my steak, but it came out a perfect medium after all, superbly tender. Supposedly the extra long marination (about 20 hours) shouldn’t have accounted for that, but hey, whatever did it, it was awesome.

A vegetable probably would have been a good idea, but… eh.

Oh, and during lunch I got a scam robocall on my cell phone hit 0 twice, and actually got to talk to a real live thing that had the gall to call itself a person. Then I told it to put me on the do not call list and followed that up with something to make them rethink their life choices while they’re lying awake at night with the lights on. I’m not a psychopath, but I play one on the phone. Until I can legalize hunting these bozos, that sort of extreme verbal and psychological abuse will have to do. (They hung up after that.)

So yeah, plenty of red meat today.

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Things I learned recently (issue 1)

Chick-fil-A is freaking awesome. I never tried them before last Friday when riding with my family on the way to Ohio. We stopped in Erie, PA. I only had a few chicken tenders, not even a sandwich or anything like that, and those suckers were so wonderful my mouth still waters at the thought. Supposedly they’re building one soon right near me. I can’t wait. But I’ll have to.

People like my book! More specifically, Below. The reviews are finally trickling in faster, and so far they’re great. I’m not selling in huge numbers or anything, but getting some decent page read counts via Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited program. Good enough!

If you go to Longhorn Steakhouse, order the Parmesan crust on your steak. Romano pairs quite well with steak too.

Sometimes nature is determined to piss you off. This is the first time in probably thirty years I haven’t done a Zoo Day. It’s June now. It’s too late. And even this June isn’t very Juney yet. I had to turn the furnace back on the other night. Good gads!

Pressing 0 on a robocall may put you in a queue to talk to a person, but most likely it’ll probably just leave you on hold for a few minutes and then hang up, totally wasting your time and ruining any opportunity to verbally abuse and/or threaten the subhuman sharts manning those phones. But it’s still worth trying, because maybe making one of them crap themselves has an outside shot of getting your number off their list. Also, I hate them.

KFC is really dropping the ball on their chicken tenders lately: way too skinny, not juicy enough, not as good a value for the money as they used to be. How am I supposed to share them with the furry vultures?

Tyra Banks is not as fun as Nick Cannon.

It’s a dirty shame Black Books ended after three seasons.

Team Fun was robbed. Stupid shrimp trap roadblock.

The only thing more satisfying than murdering your enemies is pissing on their corpses. I’m actually talking about bugs, but I’m thinking of making that statement into a meme for social media. Yes they were in the toilet first.

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Baked eggs fail

The other night I was catching up on YouTube, still trying to get back up to speed on my favorite channels after the holiday weekend, and I saw a video with 38 one-minute recipes from 5-Minute Crafts. I went to it, and although the recipes would take way longer than a minute each to actually make, a few of them looked quite interesting. In one of them, they flattened a piece of bread in the middle and cracked an egg into it, added seasoning and cheese, and baked it at 350° (although they said 180°C because they’re dirty heathens) for 20 minutes.

I thought: I should try that!

Tonight, facing the question of what to make for dinner, I decided this was a perfect way to use up one of my leftover Kaiser rolls. So I sliced one open, flattened both sides in the middle to form cups, and cracked an egg into each side. Into the oven they went, without seasoning since I planned to do that later, and without cheese since that was also going to be for later.

Good gads was that an epic fail. The whites never set up properly, requiring me to give them more time—I gave up after about 7 more minutes. After that, one of the eggs set up but it was all gummy, while the other one was a mix of gummy and still runny. The yolks were both well on their way to hard-boiled, and looked on the surface like they were covered in warped plastic wrap.

I threw the result out and had a microwave cheeseburger. And now I want blood, because those crafty jerks lied to me.

Of course it’s possible that the Kaiser rolls were a big part of the problem here. Maybe they didn’t transfer enough heat, each half being denser than a slice of white bread. I suppose that might be what went wrong. But still, you’d think that might only add a minute or two at most to the cooking time, wouldn’t you? I mean the heat of the oven should still have been enough to set the whites in that time, I would think, but it never came together.

If my Kaiser theory is correct, and this is only something I could confirm by wasting time and bread and eggs on another experiment I’m extremely dubious about, then that would imply the dimensions and makeup of the vessel used to hold the eggs matters so much that no recipe online for baking eggs could be trusted to produce consistent results. (Also, some of those recipes call for covering the eggs in milk. What the…?)

This is a darn shame, because I was really hoping to find a new way to cook eggs that didn’t involve me having to clean a pan, or dirty one. With baking I can just throw some foil onto a cookie sheet and cleanup is trivial. But apparently we can’t have nice things—at least, not when taking directions from a stupid clickbait video.

For general interest, by the way, my plan was to use both halves of the roll and put a slice of American cheese on each, then put a few strips of warmed-up leftover bacon in between them to make a sandwich. It would’ve been glorious.

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Pointless controversy: renewable energy is mostly crap

California is asking people to prepare for the solar eclipse coming in August by, at that time, unplugging anything non-essential so their grid doesn’t barf all over itself when the heavily solar-powered state suddenly has no solar power for a short while during the day. Imagine if these people ever saw a cloud. They’d crap themselves.

Renewable energy irks me, not because I don’t believe it’s a good idea in principle but because it’s such a terrible idea in execution.

Solar power has its uses, and in places like California I think it has plenty more of them than where I live in the northeast. But it is not perfect. Efficiency of solar panels is still quite low, and will remain low until someone finds incredibly cheap materials and manufacturing methods that solve its problems while also being easily scaled to mass production. It should be added that maintenance isn’t a cost that can be ignored either. But the even bigger issue is that even at 100% efficiency, solar power doesn’t have the energy density to sustain modern living. If you actually look at the amount of power that covers a particular patch of land on Earth, it’s decent but it’s not staggering.

Nevertheless I do think well of solar in principle and think it’s certainly worth having for offsetting other sources, when it’s available. Using solar energy without top-class energy storage (which we’re still working on) and a strong backup solution (e.g., more conventional sources), however, is madness. And that’s where California is at right now. In August the sun will be covered for a little while, and their grid may not be able to cope. That’s a problem that should have been tackled clear-headedly instead of going all-in on solar.

Then there’s wind. Where do I even begin? Wind power is an absolute joke. It’s fickle and only works well in certain areas. Wind turbines are wildlife destroyers, dangerous to birds and bats and in some places even raising fears of endangering species. The turbines are expensive to maintain. Like solar it requires a lot of good storage to even out spikes in delivery, but even that isn’t really enough.

There used to be a TV show on either Discovery or the Science Channel—I forget which—where they did megaengineering projects as proof of concept. In one of them they tried a floating cylindrical turbine several hundred feet off the ground, where wind is more active. Ideally they wanted to get it 1,000 feet up where the wind is steadier but strong. This kind of thing might have some potential, and it would certainly be an interesting concept to try in large cities where you could attach these things to skyscrapers. Higher up you would avoid a lot of trouble with wildlife, and with stronger wind these things might actually earn their keep.

But for now, wind power is costly, unreliable, and dangerous. It’s stupid in anything like its current form.

Ultimately there are only two good options for supplying the power demands of the world: fossil fuels and nuclear power. Fossil fuels have a lot of obvious drawbacks, not the least of which is supply. But nuclear power is criminally undervalued, and feared for reasons that are no longer relevant to the modern world.

Whenever people think of nuclear power they tend to think of truckloads of waste being sent to Nevada or wherever else, to sit underground for thousands of years. But it doesn’t have to be that way. A lot of our current-generation reactors produce a great deal of waste, but the main reason for that is that the government didn’t want to have many more-efficient breeder reactors around that created things like plutonium as by-products. That was then. These days, many newer designs are capable of using much, much more of the fuel they’re supplied with, resulting in a very clean process. In fact some can even burn existing waste, allowing us to clear out storage sites and avoid the need for any new ones.

Also, newer reactor designs are orders of magnitude safer than anything that came before. We think about disasters like Chernobyl and Fukushima, but not only were those rare cases, they’re not even possible with new types of reactors. In a molten salt reactor for instance, meltdown can’t happen. And with smaller sizes, these reactors are also exponentially less vulnerable to something as damaging as a tsunami, because they can be protected a lot more easily. Nuclear power has a pretty impressive safety record in the history it already has, with only one real worst-case scenario and a couple of less catastrophic failures (Fukushima was nowhere near that bad), and if new reactors are brought online with new designs, that track record will go way up.

And consider this: electric cars gotta get their energy from somewhere. In most cases that means coal. Coal actually produces more stray radiation than nuclear. I say that not to vilify coal, but to point out that nuclear really is that much cleaner—and in the future, the very near future if a lot of pointless red tape got cut, it can be cleaner and safer still. Nuclear power will never be fickle like the wind, nor subject to fear of clouds, or go out just because the moon sometimes gets in the way.

Even so, I still admire Elon Musk’s continuing investment in solar technology and have high hopes for it in the future. The main thing is, those hopes are not unlimited and as a realist I know we will always need a steady source. Solar power will be a heck of a lot better with a strong fallback.

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Memorial Day weekend 2017

Following the release and promo last week, I had a family commitment: a weekend trip to my late uncle’s property near Columbus, for a family reunion/memorial. It was a good time, getting to see lots of cousins again—including some I rarely get to see—and getting to know their families better. My wife had to stay home, and so did my sister’s husband, so the road trip there and back was a lot like old family vacations but with a lot less bickering.

My uncle, who passed away back on Halloween after battling cancer on and off a dozen times for the past 20 years or so, would have appreciated that we all had a get-together in his honor, because he loved big family gatherings like that. We hadn’t really all been together since we last went there in 2010, although at that time my wife and my brother-in-law were both able to make it, and so was one of my cousins who couldn’t be there this time (but his wife and kids made the trip, and boy did nobody envy her the task of rounding them all up) because he’s currently deployed.

Over the weekend of course I obsessively checked Amazon for figures to see how Below was doing, and to see if a review had popped up yet. After the free promo there were a couple of sales here and there, but nothing spectacular, although borrows started shooting up because the book is also enrolled in Kindle Unlimited. The most interesting stuff with the book happened after the weekend.

Last Wednesday, another author on Kboards shared a very interesting link about fonts, and I thought it’d be a great link to share with my favorite blog Dubious Quality. The owner of that blog likes to post all kinds of interesting reader-submitted links on Fridays. Since the free promo was going on, and I know he’s into gaming including stuff like Dwarf Fortress (which is actually how I discovered his blog in the first place), I thought he’d appreciate the book too, so I told him it was going to be free for another day because hey, free book.

I came home from the trip on Sunday, and then Memorial Day rolled around. Oddly I noticed a spike in sales. Later in the day I went to check up on my usual links to see what was going on in the world, and I found that Dubious Quality had an article about my book. And it said wonderful things. Sleep did not come easy that night, because I was far too excited about the fact that someone had nice things to say about my book.

Last night the first Amazon review came in. It said some nice things as well, so I’m pretty happy with that too.

So that’s been my past week in brief. Preparing for trip, long car ride, watching Amazon, lots of family, long car ride, watching Amazon, first reviews. I’m still trying to get back into a normal rhythm, but it’s very difficult. Yesterday we had to cut the day short for a birthday celebration, and this morning I had to drop off Jack at the vet for a dental cleaning and as a result I’m punchy and find it impossible to focus on my real work which requires concentration and intelligence. Heck, I think I’ve had two decent nights’ sleep this entire past week. (Much as I didn’t mind having a king bed to myself in the hotel for two nights, gads that was a firm mattress.)

I feel like very soon I should do a cooking post, because my uncle loved those. Any time I posted on Facebook about things I had made, or was planning to make while in Bad Idea Mode, he had enthusiastically supportive things to say. Understand that this side of the family is Italian, and my uncle carried on the tradition of frequently making sausage with our family recipe, so cooking was never far from his heart, either. It seems only fitting to keep up those posts.

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