Goodbye Tree

We lost a tree today. It’s actually been dead for some time now, but unlike dead people, dead trees often manage to stay standing for quite a long time. But today it came down with a chainsaw induced crash. I’m struck by some emotion over this (it’s not my first such nostalgic goodbye), it had to go, but it’s always been there.

We’ve lived in our home for 27 years, and the tree was here first. So that’s how long we were acquainted. It was a pine tree of some sort. I don’t know enough about trees to specify a particular sort of pine tree. But it had needles, and cones, and sap, and smelled like pine. That was good enough.

Years ago, we were visited by a young man who lived in our house before us during his childhood, his family was the original owners (we’re the third – did any of us really ‘own’ the home? – but I digress). This young man told me that for their first Christmas in this home, they had a live Christmas tree that they planted in the yard after the holidays. This was our pine tree. I wrote about it at the time.

Pine tree saw our three kids grow up, providing sturdy and evenly spaced limbs for young climbers, and plenty of sap to sticky them up to mark their efforts. Tree’s branches supported piñatas at birthday parties, and bird feeders that were quickly emptied by acrobatic squirrels. Tree’s shade was of a superior quality. Yet each year tree dispersed piles of brown needles which covered our roof, filled our rain gutters, and took out one hot tub pump after sneaking past the filters.

In tree’s shadow is a younger dogwood tree that I planted 12 years ago on an inspired arbor day. I wrote about it at the time. Dogwood has done well in Pine’s shadow, and will now enjoy much greater light, now that Pine’s not there to cast a shadow any longer. I’m glad that Dogwood will inherit the legacy of being the tree planted by one of this home’s rotating owners.

Pine tree fell victim to some sort of boring beetle (I’ve yet to ever meet an engaging beetle). Goodbye Tree. You will be missed, and remembered as your remains will be cremated in many driveway fires for years to come.

Book Review: The Attention Merchants by Tim Wu

The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our HeadsThe Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads by Tim Wu
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This was a fascinating history of the industry, people, and tactics that relentlessly pursue your attention. The book covers the advances of this industry as it keeps pace with advancing technology, from propaganda posters, radio, movies, television, email, the web, and most recently on social media and to the ‘fourth screen’ the mobile devices that rarely leave our grip. It probably won’t come as a surprise to anyone that you are constantly being advertised to, but it’s still very eye opening to learn the history and evolution of the efforts to get inside your head, eye opening and unnerving.

I began reading this book the weekend before Thanksgiving. And on an unrelated whim, on Thanksgiving Eve, I decided I would focus on enjoying the company of having my kids home for the holiday, and take a ‘Facebook Fast’ for three days. I’m guilty of being pretty much addicted to Facebook, obsessively checking in, sharing another selfie, forwarding a ‘real’ news article, and liking and commenting on the sharing by others. The notion of opting out of Facebook for three days felt much like a drinker’s (which I am) going on the wagon for a few days, just to prove to themselves that they can. Well, I did, and it was find. I should have turned off the notifications from Facebook on my phone, which worked to suck me back in, but I resisted.

And being off of Facebook, helped allow me to more quickly tear through this engaging book, which coincidentally, in it’s final lines, advised doing exactly what I had done,

“If we desire a future that avoids the enslavement of the propaganda state as well as the narcosis of the consumer and celebrity culture, we must first acknowledge the preciousness of our attention and resolve not to part with it as cheaply or unthinkingly as we so often have. And then we must act, individually and collectively, to make our attention our own again, and so reclaim ownership of the very experience of living.”

My only wish for improvement would have been if the book had included a section of photos and illustrations. Frequently when reading, I couldn’t help but tear my attention from the deep reading I was enjoying in order to Google a wartime poster, or a person, or breakthrough advertising campaign in order to better know and appreciate what I was reading about. All things which should have been included in the book.

Despite that minor quibble, I recommend this book highly. And I expect that my successful experiment of a Facebook Fast is one that I’ll repeat. Not just to prove that I can. But to reclaim ownership of MY very experience of living.

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This Salsa Sucks!

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Coca-Cola paved the way. When a company launches a new version of their product, and it sucks, they sheepishly re-offer the original version and call it “Classic”, as Coca-Cola did 31 years ago after customer backlash following the launch of New Coke.

I recently learned that Salsa has done the same with their online advocacy tools.

I’m not new to Salsa. I actually worked for a competing vendor, NGP VAN, for seven years. Since then, I have had extensive opportunities to use Salsa’s tools. I learned through that experience that they didn’t suck. Salsa had strengths and weaknesses when compared against what I was familiar with, but I came to learn and appreciate what was good about them, and to use them effectively.

When I recently started in a new job and sought online advocacy tools to use, I did a quick review of alternatives, but lazily went with Salsa as it was what I had used most recently. I had no reason to suspect that I was purchasing something different than the Salsa tools familiar to me. Their website describes simply “Online Advocacy Software”. So when I signed a contract purchasing “SalsaEngage”, I expected I was buying the familiar tools that I told their sales rep I had used for years. When I first launched and began to explore them, I found a different looking interface, but just assumed they had been upgraded (I’ve looked at that ‘I want the new interface’ login screen checkbox for a long time already).

Instead, over the course of two months, I found that SalsaEngage was a completely new product. And I found it to suck. From the very start, the most fundamental first step of importing new contact records and attempting to assign them to a group code (now called a segment) proved ridiculously challenging. Attempts to learn how to do this from Salsa’s support only compounded my frustration… “Yes, I have already read the online documentation that it took you two days to refer me to, and No, it still doesn’t answer the question I asked.”

That was only the beginning. I soon learned that the only batch option for making edits to multiple records was to DELETE THEM ALL (maybe adding a group code, or updating some other common field would be useful instead of deleting them all?). I also found that the reporting on A/B testing of emails in one view didn’t match the results shown in another view of Salsa’s interface (who clicked? who unsubscribed? If Salsa Engage has these answers, I couldn’t find them.)

My patience exhausted, I informed Salsa that I wished to terminate our contract and requested a refund for the remaining 10 months of unused service for the year that we had prepaid. And I received the following reply,

“Thank you for your message. Yes, we did receive your message and I was speaking with my supervisor before getting back to you. SalsaEngage is a stripped down, very on-rails tools that we offer for users who are not looking for a ton of customization or flexibility with their email, advocacy, and fundraising needs. After reviewing your concerns and frustrations, I believe that SalsaClassic would be a much better fit for you and your organization, and would be more than happy to setup a time to show you a demo of the tool to ensure that it can and will meet your needs. What’s more, after speaking to my supervisor, I can offer you SalsaClassic at the same price you were paying for SalsaEngage, which is at a discount.”

And there it was, Classic Coke! For the first time a distinction was made between the product I was given, SalsaEngage, and the product I believed I had purchased, Salsa “Classic”. Despite the fact that I had described myself as an experienced Salsa user, there had been no previous mention that I was buying a “stripped down” version of the tools I expected. Would I now like to receive what I had originally asked for? My response was simply, “No! Thanks for the offer, but NO! It’s too late.” To which I received the below reply from my Salsa “Client Success Agent”:

I completely understand the frustrations that you experienced and I want to apologize again that you were not shown the SalsaClassic tool initially when you were looking at our services. However, after speaking with the upper management team, because your organization signed a contract with Salsa for 12 months of service, we are not going to be able to cancel your account. We can, however, offer you the SalsaClassic platform, at the rate you’re currently paying for SalsaEngage – and, I got approval for us to credit your organization for the two months that you spent on SalsaEngage that you feel like was a waste.

Really Salsa? Is this how you do business?

Contractually, Salsa may be able enforce our 12-month contract. Ethically, they misled me into purchasing a product that was not what I had every reason to expect I was getting. Then only after I had wasted my time learning how badly SalsaEngage sucks, offered me their never before mentioned “Classic” version.

I let my Salsa “Client Success Agent” know that I wanted to speak with someone in their “upper management”, and after a week of silence, I repeated that request. I was contacted by Salsa’s “Director of Client Success”, and made clear that the only successful outcome for me would be a terminated contract with a refund of the unused amount. He said that would be a “heavy lift”, but that he’d see what he can do. That was a month ago, and I’ve heard nothing back.

I wish Salsa had done the right thing by offering me an apology and a refund. They chose instead to hold me hostage as a customer, bound either to an inadequate product or an outdated one. They can do that. My responsibility to our community is to share this story of my experience as a cautionary tale.

Something’s gone very wrong in the Labs. And I want you to know, in my humble opinion, this Salsa Sucks.

The Clumsy Stormtrooper

Home again after a 40-day work trip abroad, my lovely wife took the day off for my first day back, to start a wonderful long weekend to reacquaint. And what did she suggest? “We should watch ALL of the Star Wars movies to be ready for the opening of the new one”! (My wife is awesome). I’m no fanatic, but I know my Star Wars pretty well. I know that Han shot first. I’ve heard the Wilhelm Scream in there. I’ve had lengthy debates with friends about whether Luke ever returned to Dagobah to complete his Jedi training after ‘The Empire Strikes Back’. I’ve even followed recent debates about whether the destruction of Alderaan was justified. I can still quote lines from the original like it’s memorized, and I often do. So, not a fanatic, but still I think, Star Wars savvy.

So tonight we mix our drinks, make our popcorn, and settle in to watch the original Star Wars, Episode IV, A New Hope. We addressed the question of the proper order (release order, sequence order) and she doesn’t know it yet, but I think we’ll try the Machete order, but I digress.

The point is, I’ve seen this movie about a thousand times, but there’s always something new. Tonight, I think for the first time, I spotted this; while Han, Chewie and Luke are off on the Death Star detention level, stuck in a trash compactor, C-3PO and R2-D2 are barricaded in a control room that Stormtroopers are breaking into. Watch closely the Stormtrooper on the right, as they enter the control room.

Wow! How did I miss that before? Curious, I turn to Google, and not surprisingly, I find I’m about the last one to notice. The YouTube video I’ve embedded here has been viewed almost five million times. And this article in the Star Wars Wookiepedia explains the history of the head bump, and reveals that George Lucas added a sound effect in the 2004 DVD release to actually point out the gaffe, and I guess to remind us that Stormtroopers are human too.

Anyway, we’re looking forward to the next installment that we hope to catch over the holidays, and we hope to hear a Wilhelm Scream and to see a good head bump or two.

Tell Chris to Walk the Dog!

Hey Friends,

I’m playing around with some online advocacy tools and I created this petition as an experiment. If you’re reading this, help me out and sign the petition.

Thanks!

Chris (and yes, I’ll walk the dog, I promise)

UPDATE: I walked the dog.

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Goodbye Family Minivan

I don’t care much about cars. I’m definitely not anything at all what you would call a ‘car guy’. My requirements for a car, as Steve Martin so succinctly put it, “Four fucking wheels and a seat!”. But we just sold our car, and the truth is, I’m feeling pretty sentimental about it.

We purchased our 2001 Honda Odyssey used way back when it had about 20,000 miles on it, and we just sold it with 208,074 miles. And among those miles in between, we raised our family it it. Local miles to school and soccer games, family trips to the Outer Banks, and home to Illinois. It drove us through big cities, and it delivered us to campgrounds. Our kids learned to drive it, and it sat loyally in the driveway every winter, posing for the obligatory buried in snow photos without complaint.

But as we empty our nest, and downsize our belongings, we no longer need an old minivan. We considered many options; shooting it (don’t own a gun), living in it (down by the river), abandoning it (probably traceable DNA to be found on lost french fries and cheerios on the floor), or selling it. I’m very happy that we found a buyer, a family with five kids, and dad’s a mechanic. They live close buy, so it’s gonna be kinda weird seeing our minivan on the road sometimes. But it will be nice to know, it’s found a new family to serve.

Here’s a few photos from over the years:

A Driving Odessey

Boardwalk Empire at the National Archives

So a few months back, talking TV shows over a few beers, my buddy TJ recommended the HBO Series ‘Boardwalk Empire’ to me. I had a vague notion it was a period gangster type of thing, and having recently read a few good books about the prohibition era, TJ’s endorsement pushed me over the edge to check it out. Because who doesn’t have time for another TV show in their life? Fortunately, modern life means missing a show doesn’t mean missing it forever, or even waiting for reruns. We can consume our TV on demand. And so I’ve been binging on Boardwalk Empire lately. No one else in the family is watching it, so it’s either late night solo shows, or commuter episodes snuck in on my iPhone on the bus (thank you grandfathered unlimited data plan!).

Anyway, I’m halfway through season 4 of the 5 season show and really loving it, when I got an email from the National Archives about a free ‘behind the scenes’ discussion with the author of the book that inspired the series, the writer who developed it for HBO, two actors from the show, and the visual effects supervisor from the show. It was a very interesting and entertaining event, and much to the Archives credit, the whole thing was live on YouTube and remains there now. If you’re a fan of the show, you’ll really enjoy watching this. But you had to be there to get a signed copy of the book 🙂

Book Review: The Great Agnostic

The Great Agnostic: Robert Ingersoll and American FreethoughtThe Great Agnostic: Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought by Susan Jacoby

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I first learned about the American politician, orator and ‘great agnostic’ Robert Ingersoll after reading a couple of books about American Freethinkers back in 2005 and 2006. I similarly enjoyed this biography about him, a book which now has many dog eared pages for particularly noteworthy quotes or passages. Among my favorites from Ingersoll is his creed,

Happiness is the only good.
The time to be happy is now.
The place to be happy is here.
The way to be happy is to make others so.

It’s opportune that I finished this book while near Peoria, I will try and pay a visit to his statue in Glen Oak Park while I’m here, and must later visit his resting place in Arlington National Cemetery. Robert, you have a standing invite to attend ‘Chris’ Afterlife Dream Party of Historical Figures’. I hope you’ll be there, oh wait… nevermind.

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UPDATE: We made our visit to Glen Oak Park and paid homage to Ingersoll!

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