Canada: Paying More Taxes, Getting More Services

I don’t often delve into politics or healthcare economics on this blog, but I’d spent some time writing up a reply on a Facebook thread that I felt was worth re-posting here. The single biggest struggle I’ve had since moving to the USA has been the healthcare system. It’s…insane. The people who have lived in it their whole lives don’t all grasp how insane it is. This response was written to one such person who brought up the Canadian tax system and said the taxes were too high.

Yes, you pay more taxes in Canada. But you know what you don’t need? Basic healthcare insurance. Guess how much I had to pay out of pocket in 2015 for health insurance? Just under $10,000. My employer also paid $5300 above that cost, so figure $15K all-in to insure two non-smoking adults and two kids. Oh, and another $6500 off my paycheque for the HSA because I’m on a high-deductible plan and I have to pay for ALL my healthcare until I hit the deductible for the year (which is about $2000 per person or $6500 for the family I believe). The HSA is a great invention, but since it’s only for healthcare, it’s another healthcare cost – so figure I’m paying $21K per year so my family has healthcare coverage…yikes! The only good thing is the HSA rolls over each year and helps people save for the more expensive years of healthcare. And that I can pay for dental stuff with it – which of course I have ANOTHER plan for the costs me $1300 a year for. Oh, and vision…
Continue reading Canada: Paying More Taxes, Getting More Services

MobileViews Podcast 181: New Apple & Microsoft Hardware Announcements

My friend Todd Ogasawara invited me to join his MobileViews podcast, so along with Jon Westfall and Sven Johanssen, I joined in the conversation. It’s always great to get together and talk tech with like-minded folks.

Todd kicked off the podcast with what didn’t get announced:

  1. A Surface “amateur” 4 to follow-up the popular low-priced Surface 3
  2. A Windows Hello mouse with fingerprint reader
  3. An affordable (sub $900) Macbook anything
  4. A refreshed Mac mini – has not been refreshed since Oct. 2014

There’s some ranting me from about the new Macbook Pro, and some thoughts about Microsoft’s Studio Pro.

This Is Why I Love Amazon: Their Customer Service

I’ve been consistently impressed by Amazon’s customer service over the years – one of the reasons I buy so often from Amazon is how easy it is to return things, and how great their agents are when I’ve had a more complicated issue. Today though, they reached an all new high.

I’d purchased an Echo Dot in May, and right from the start we noticed the microphone array was inferior to the full-sized Echo we used to have in the same spot. It’s not uncommon for me to hear my wife or kids yelling at the Echo Dot because it doesn’t respond the first time. It’s especially bad at recognizing commands if there’s any other noise in the room. So it was always in the back of my head that the Dot wasn’t quite as great as the original Echo. I didn’t come to this realization within the first 30 days though, or else I’d have returned it.

Imagine my surprise then when Amazon announced a second-generation Echo Dot only four months after I bought mine, and at almost half the price to boot. The big feature was an improved microphone array. Tech marches ever onward, and I’m not normally one to complain about obsolescence, but four months is completely crazy! It made me think they knew they released a flawed first-gen product and they were rushing to get the new one out. You can’t even post a review of the first-gen Echo Dot now.

Today I called Amazon and basically said I was disappointed in the performance of my first-gen Echo Dot and upset at how quickly Amazon made it obsolete. Most companies would simply feed me a line about how they were serving their customers better by quickly improving their products, blah blah. I didn’t ask for anything specific, I just laid out why I was unhappy.

Instead of feeding me a generic response, the Amazon rep talked to his manager and came back with an offer of letting me return the Echo Dot – five months after I bought it – for an 80% refund in the form of an Amazon gift card. How amazing is that? So I can order the new Dot if I want, and have money left over for something else.

Can’t beat that! Amazon continues to earn my repeat business…which is one reason we’ve ordered from them 236 times so far this year. 😉

A Quote on Humility

“True humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.”

― C.S. Lewis

A Modern Music Discussion

My Wife: “Alexa, play Two Steps From Hell“.

Alexa: “I can’t find the song Two Steps From Hell in your library or Amazon music.”

Me: “That’s weird. Maybe Alexa didn’t hear you. Alexa, play Two Steps From Hell”.

Alexa: “I can’t find the song Two Steps From Hell in your library or Amazon music.”

Me: “What? I’ve been listening to Two Steps From Hell forever! That’s impossible – we own several of their albums.”

My Wife: “Maybe it’s not in Amazon Music?”

Me: “Hmm. I was sure I uploaded those albums to Amazon music. Apparently, we don’t own any music by Two Steps From Hell? We’ve been listening to it on Google Music for two years.”

My Wife: “Oh.”

Two weeks later, as I’m writing this blog post, I still have this nagging feeling that I own this music…someplace. So I check my music collection on my NAS and five several albums by Two Steps From Hell. I walk over to my Amazon Echo Dot.

Me: “Alexa, play albums by Two Steps From Hell”.

Alexa: “Playing your albums by Two Steps From Hell.”

<music starts playing>

Me: “I’m really glad I ordered a Google Home today”.

Alexa: “Go to hell.”

OK, so Alexa didn’t actually say that last part, but I’m sure she was thinking it. I started off as a huge, unabashed fanboy of Amazon’s Echo, but the lustre has worn off. My first Echo had a mysterious audio failure one month after the warranty expired; Alexa couldn’t verbalize any responses. I’d see the ring light up indicating she was responding, but no sound came out. A reboot would fix it for a while, but randomly she’d lose her voice again. Sounds like a firmware issue, right? Amazon tech support said no and that my Echo was faulty. They very graciously sent me a replacement – even though I was on month 13 of a 12 month warranty – and I sent the defective one back for a post-mortem.

I started off as a huge, unabashed fanboy of Amazon’s Echo, but the lustre has worn off. My first Echo had a mysterious audio failure one month after the warranty expired; Alexa couldn’t verbalize any responses. I’d see the ring light up indicating she was responding, but no sound came out. A reboot would fix it for a while, but randomly she’d lose her voice again. Sounds like a firmware issue, right? Amazon tech support said no and that my Echo was faulty. They very graciously sent me a replacement – even though I was on month 13 of a 12-month warranty – and I sent the defective one back for a post-mortem.

My Echo Dot was ordered March 17th, delivered May 20th, and made obsolete September 14th. That’s 182 day (6 months). Coming from the tech world, I know that technology marches ever onward. Products are always going to become obsolete. But six months between product releases? That’s slightly outrageous by any measure and as a customer, I feel burned by that.

The Echo Dot has a vastly inferior microphone system from my experience – since we moved the Echo upstairs and the Echo Dot became our kitchen-area voice assistant, and it’s not uncommon to hear my wife and son yelling at it. If there’s any ambient noise at all, the Echo Dot simply doesn’t respond. The full-sized Echo was amazing at hearing us no matter what was going on, but the Dot is quite terrible at it. I don’t think I have a defective product, as I had a few people on Twitter reporting the same problem.

Amazon’s Echo is generally great at what it does (music, shopping, home automation), but the deep learning and insanely huge data set that Google can draw upon gives them a tremendous advantage over what Amazon can offer. I’m keen to see if the Google Home I ordered is really as good as they made it seem in the keynote. We’ll see…

Saying No to Credit Cards in a Tangible Way

Credit cards. We’re awash in them as a society, and our exposure to them often starts in college (if not sooner). The day you get your first credit card, you join a system of credit and debt that can financially eat you alive if you’re not careful. I have nothing against the idea of credit cards – I use one constantly myself, paying it off every payday. And recently we used our card points to book a trip (more on that later). What I object to though is how credit card companies market their products: they send out those “you’re approved” letters, tempting people with credit problems.

Credit cards are a tool in your financial toolbox, but they’re a little like juggling a chainsaw. One or two are manageable, but if you try more than that, odds are you’re going to lose a hand (financially speaking).

Credit card companies are data-driven. They know that for every 1000 applications they send out, they’ll get a certain percentage of completions. Of the ones that get approved, most of them will turn into incredible profit generators for the company; most people don’t pay them off every cycle, and only accumulate more debt over time. But what if it became significantly more expensive for credit card companies to gain new customers this way?

My solution is simple and shown in the image above: rip up the credit card application and send it back to them. They have to pay for postage, so this costs you nothing.

corporate-credit-refusal-2

Credit cards are financial tools that should be available for financially mature adults who can use them responsibly. They should not be dangled in front of every like debt-candy.

If we all make it more expensive for credit cards companies to run unsolicited marketing campaigns like this, they might do it less often. Yes, I know it would take huge numbers of these going back to them to change their behaviour, but you have to start someplace. 🙂

 

A Mac User and His New iMac – Month Four

The journey continues! By month four, I was starting to really get the hang of OS X, and most of my questions were more about “Why did they do that?” versus “How do I do that?”. I’m still no power user, but slowly the mysteries of OS X are unveiling themselves to me…

  • I am puzzled by what OS X does with videos and resolution. It looks like, in the case of video (because nobody like tiny videos), Apple will automatically double the playback size of a video; normal is a 2x zoom. This can cause some confusion if you’re working with videos – I’m not entirely convinced this was the right decision for Apple to make, but you can certainly play video at 2x size and have it look fairly good so there’s not a bit quality loss here visually.

1080p IMAGE

Above: the default size of a 1920 x 1080 JPEG as viewed with Lily View.

1080p TOO BIG

Above: the default size of the QuickTime player for a 1080p video.

1080p RIGHT SIZE

Above: the QuickTime video reduced in twice by two steps – close to proper size.

Continue reading A Mac User and His New iMac – Month Four

A Mac User and His New iMac – Month Three

I’ve slowed down taking notes on my “learning OS X” project – largely because I seem to have gotten over most of the rough edges – but I still have many notes to share from the intense first few months. Here’s what I was experiencing in month three.

OSX-microsoft-office-updates-suck

  • I’m not clear why/how, but the Microsoft Office updates for OS X are really terrible. The download takes forever – I’m on a 40mbps connection, but because there’s no speed indicator I’m not clear if the updates are gigantic or the update server just dishes up the bits slowly (hello Xbox Live!). The install progress also takes a while. The number of updates is fairly frequent (feels like almost weekly), and it’s a process that’s simply far too slow. Microsoft really needs to do better here. It would be great if updates for Office came through the App Store, but I imagine Microsoft has reasons for not using that delivery mechanism…

Continue reading A Mac User and His New iMac – Month Three