Amazon Christmas “Fun”

I’ve been using Amazon.com for a long long time. My oldest orders on record there are from 1998, but I’m sure I was ordering from them before that. I’ve always been very impressed with their business: Availability of items, fringe benefits like the Associates program and the free super saver shipping option, and their customer service, which has always been very helpful when I’ve had to contact them, which fortunately hasn’t been very often.

This Christmas season has eroded my faith in Amazon somewhat. Now, I’ll say up front that things turned out well overall, but my Christmas experience with Amazon resulted in more glitches in one month than I think I’ve seen since I started using them.

Here’s a rundown of what happened:

  1. I received a box from them which I opened and noticed that the gift cards were from “Mom” but to “Rachel”. The box was indeed addressed to me, so I opened the itinery to see that someone else’s order had been placed in a box addressed to me. I contacted my family, and the UPS tracking number was one my Dad had received. He contacted Amazon by phone and was told I would have to send the items back and would received a gift certificate for the value of the items Dad ordered. Dad’s comment: “That’s not very much like Christmas.”

    Well, instead I contacted Amazon customer service through e-mail, and after I provided them all the information they needed, they instead packed up a new box with the items Dad ordered and sent it to me. So all turned out well, and I didn’t need to send anything back. (Ironically, my aversion to calling people on the phone worked in our favor here.)

  2. I received another box with a wrapped item from my Mom, and another wrapped item addressed to someone else. Apparently someone else’s order got placed in the same box by mistake. Since there was no indication the first time around that they’d fix the other person’s problem unless that other person contacted them, I didn’t contact Amazon about this. (The item in question was a CD which actually looks kind of interesting.)
  3. My Dad received some items I ordered for him, and they were wrapped, but had no gift cards. The order didn’t show any gift note when I reviewed it, so in all fairness I might have screwed this up myself rather than Amazon losing my note. On the other hand, Dad says he received some gifts from someone else which were not wrapped but should have been.
  4. Finally, I received one CD from my Dad which should have been wrapped but was not. That’s not the fun part though: When I unwrapped presents from Dad, one of them was another copy of the same CD. However, if this was part of the order they had to re-ship, this might have just been a little fallout from the first problem. (Anyone want a copy of Shadow Gallery‘s Tyranny?)

None of this is likely to make me stop using Amazon in the future (fat chance!), but it is an unfortunate set of events. The moral of the story is: Take a look at what you received, even if it’s wrapped, to make sure it looks like it’s correct, because the sooner you notice any problems the sooner you can work with Amazon to get them fixed.

And Amazon’s customer service still rocks, for getting things fixed in time.

Happy Holidays!

I hope everyone who had today off from work enjoyed it, and that everyone else didn’t have too hard a time of it.

We had a pleasant morning opening presents. I had to go upstairs and carry Roulette down from a rough morning of watching birds to frolic in the wrapping paper, but she got into the spirit in a hurry!

We spent the afternoon at Subrata and Susan’s, having brunch and doing a blind gift exchange. We saw Mark and Yvette there, and some friends of Susan’s. When we came home, I cooked up some dinner from a trial cooking magazine I received: Penne with asparagus and pistachios in a cream sauce. It came out quite tasty! (Last night I made meatloaf, which despite taking longer than I’d planned was also quite good. So now we have two days of leftovers.)

Everyone be well. I’ll leave you with a photo of our Christmas card collection this year:

Christmas_Cards.jpg

For Your Eyes Only

It’s time for SpikeTV‘s Christmas Bondathon, and right now we’re watching the best Roger Moore Bond film, For Your Eyes Only (1981).

My favorite part of this film is maybe the opening sequence, which essentially lays to rest some of the dangling elements from the Sean Connery days: Bond’s marriage, and his old foe Blofeld (who’s filmed the way he was in the early films, without any view of his face). Despite a couple of corny lines, it’s a terrific sequence. I’d also love to get an MP3 of the incidental music from the moment that Bond yanks the cable on the helicopter, which I think is just a neat bit of adventure music.

(The rest of the film is quite good as well. It would have been a fine place to relaunch the franchise, but sadly the series spluttered creatively following this film.)

The early 80s are such a weird time to look at in retrospect: The lingering effects of late-70s fashion and pop music, but the beginnings of the businesslike conservatism of the Reagan years. FYEO navigates this territory in the bizarre manner of James Bond films, seeming both an embodiment of the period and a funhouse mirror of it. I think the fact that it remains a fundamentally serious film, and more a part of the Cold War then any other Bond film are what elevates it above the other Moore films.

Library Thing

Library Thing is a Web site where you can catalog your library. You can enter up to 200 books for free. Or you can buy a membership for $10/year or $25 for your lifetime. (The latter is obviously a great value in the long run.)

I’ve started entering my library, starting with the hardcovers and trade paperbacks (otherwise known in my household as “the small bookcases”). You can view my library if you’d like, although it will take a while before I get it fleshed out. (Don’t expect me to get to the humor or non-fiction for a while.)

The site has its pros and cons, although its pros far outweigh its cons.

Pros:

  • You can search by author, title, ISBN, and other aspects to enter a book into your library.
  • Searches can be made against several sites (such as Amazon), which often come with default information and cover art.
  • The editing page is very easy to use, if you want to tweak an entry in your library.
  • You can link to reviews you’ve written in your journal so others can access them from Library Thing, or write a review directly on the site.

Cons:

  • The database doesn’t have separate fields for copyright date (i.e., when the book was first published) and publication date (i.e., the date this edition was published). Both are interesting to track.
  • The database doesn’t have a way to list individual stories in a collection, or (of more interest) individual books in an omnibus.
  • The Suggestions page doesn’t have a way to ask that it permanently exclude a volume from its recommendations (although “omit authors already in your catalog” gets close).

One thing that’s been interesting as I enter books is that I’ve found a few books I own which I could not easily locate via the search mechanism. For instance, I own first edition hardcovers of Vernor Vinge’s novels The Peace War and Marooned in Realtime, and I couldn’t find the latter, so I entered it manually. That means I’ll probably also scan its cover to add to my library.

All of this is probably not the best way to spend my time. 🙂 As Cliff said when I told him about it, I’d probably do better spending my holiday vacation writing my own fiction.

Offseason Roundup: Athletics

A look at the Oakland Athletics’ off-season moves.

Under general manager Billy Beane, the A’s have had an interesting odyssey this last decade. When they first won the AL in 2000, they were 3rd in runs scored, and 3rd in runs allowed. By 2003, they 9th in runs scored and 2nd in runs allowed. That was their last postseason appearance until 2006, during which time the team has been substantially rebuilt. This past year they were 9th in runs scored and 3rd in runs allowed. But rather than doing it with the acclaimed “big three” pitchers of Hudson, Mulder and Zito, the statistical wisdom is that in 2006 they did it with stellar defense behind merely decent pitching.

The A’s are a strangely built team, with very few bad players but also very few great players. Even their marquee pitcher Barry Zito seems to be built for the long haul, but in any given game he can be very erratic, as he strikes out a lot of guys but also walks a lot of guys, and consequently throws a lot of pitches, which can lead to short exits. Meanwhile the offense this year consisted of a bunch of solid contributors and Frank Thomas.

Here’s how their off-season is shaping up:

Leaving:

  • Ken Macha, manager (fired)
  • Barry Zito, SP (free agent, unsigned but probably not coming back)
  • Frank Thomas, DH (free agent, to the Blue Jays)
  • Jay Payton, OF (free agent, to the Orioles)
  • D’Angelo Jimenez, 2B (released)
  • Scott Sauerbeck, RP (released)

Arriving:

  • Bob Geren, manager
  • Mike Piazza, C/DH (free agent, 1 year, $8.5M, from the Padres)
  • Erubiel Durazo, DH (free agent, minor league contract)
  • Alan Embree, RP (free agent, 2 years, $5.5M)

(Full free agent data can be found here, and recent A’s transactions here.)

Macha was fired more for political reasons (reportedly he and Beane didn’t get along so well), and Geren’s skills are not known. However, Beane tends to hire managers who will follow his plan and they tend to be relatively faceless characters who push the right buttons and don’t overwork the pitchers. Geren is likely cut from the same cloth.

The big losses are of course Zito and Thomas. Zito is a genuinely good pitcher, and while he has the limitations I mentioned, he’s not going to be easy to replace. Thomas was lightning in a bottle, signed to a one-year deal after a few disappointing years, and the only all-around great hitter in the lineup (Mark Swisher is a good hitter, but until he can consistently bat in the 275-or-better range he’s not going to be a great one), but Toronto plucked Thomas out from the A’s nest.

Thomas will be replaced by Mike Piazza, who had a fine year for the Padres, but isn’t a great bet to repeat it. More likely his 2007 will look a lot like Swisher’s 2006. So he’ll have value, but he won’t truly replace Thomas.

The A’s are well-known competing on a “small market” payroll, but because of that they’re unlikely to bring in any additional impact free agents to replace Zito. The A’s real problem is the lack of impact players: Eric Chavez has never really developed into the star he’d looked like in his youth, and Bobby Crosby is both injury-prone and has not been able to sustain a high batting average (with essentially two full seasons under his belt, he’s a 244 hitter). Swisher, as I said, needs to boost his average to become a star. The rest of the line-up are unlikely to get any better, and some might get worse.

On the pitching side, Dan Haren and Joe Blanton are decent enough pitchers, but have not turned into stars. Haren might yet break through, but Blanton looks doubtful. Esteban Loaiza is another solid contributor. Rich Harden has ace potential, but he’s been through such a morass of injuries lately that it’s hard to know what to expect from him.

The A’s went 93-69 in 2006, winning the AL West by 4 games over Anaheim, but beating their third-order wins projection by about 11 games. That probably means that they got pretty lucky in 2006, and a regression in 2007 is in order. My guess is that they’ll just clear the .500 mark next year, and will be beaten by the Angels and maybe even the Rangers in a fairly weak division.

That said, one thing I haven’t mentioned is Beane’s ability to get good value in trade, and I wouldn’t put it past him to trade for an impact bat or an overlooked but exciting young pitcher. I’m not sure who he’d trade (Loaiza? Bradley? Chavez?), but Beane is one of the craftier GMs in baseball, and he’s certainly got the skills to be able to radically improve the team with a single stroke. So unlike the Giants, who I think have almost no hope for 2007, we won’t truly know where the A’s stand until opening day.

Map of the Internet

Here’s a very cool “map” of the IP address space circa 2006 in the web comic xkcd.

What surprises me about the map is how much unused space there is. Had you asked me before I saw this map, I would have said I thought the IP address space was nearly filled up.

Here’s why:

IP addresses are 32 bits long, which means there are about 4 billion possible IP addresses. That works out to less than 1 address per living human. Okay, so not everyone is going to have a computer on the Internet – certainly most people in third world countries won’t – but that still works out to about 13 computers per US citizen. Certainly every US citizen isn’t going to have 13 computers, but many people will have 2 – or more – 1 at home and 1 at work. And companies have lots of computers acting as servers, and universities have lots of computers sitting in labs for general use. And on top of that, I knew that top-level slices – 1/256th of the IP space (each with about 15 million addresses) – had been allocated to companies, such as Apple, and therefore that a large slice of the space had been allocated but was probably not being used (if you think Apple has 15 million computers in use on its campus, you’ve got another think coming). Among all of this, I would have guessed that we’d use up the IP address space sometime in the next 10 years.

Instead, about 1/4 of the top-level subnets are not allocated at all.

I think I basically grossly overestimated how many computers there are: Probably there’s less than 1 computer in the US per citizen (there were about 190 million in early 2005), and less than that across the rest of the world. And fewer top-level slices had been allocated to companies than I’d thought, so there’s less potentially-allocated-but-unused space. Plus, the use of NAT on local networks means multiple computers can share a single IP address, which I think is a common setup for home networks where all the machines are clients (rather than servers). This is how my home network is set up, for instance.

I still wonder if we’ll run out of IP addresses in my lifetime, though. Especially if we have some sort of nanotech breakthrough where we have large numbers of very small computers which all need their own unique network identifiers. “I’m sorry, the singularity had to be delayed because we ran out of IP addresses.”

For Better or For Worse: House Fire

Lea Hernandez criticizes the comic strip For Better or For Worse‘s current storyline, which involves the house Michael and Deanna are renting having a fire. Hernandez lost her own house in a fire in September, so this hits close to home for her.

When I read the beginning of the FBoFW storyline – before seeing Hernandez’ post – my reaction was “Geez, isn’t this kind of over the top?” FBoFW’s appeal is mainly that it’s a slice-of-life story about its characters, and while there have been a few exceptional events (Michael and Deanna hooking up because she was in a car accident, for instance), I think this story has the potential to go rather too far. Especially since it’s coming on the heels of an extended episode in which Elly’s father Jim had a stroke. It’s one trauma too many.

By the way, the For Better or For Worse web site is, uh, one of the more poorly-designed pro sites I’ve seen lately: Extremely busy design, so much going on it’s very hard to focus on individual items. And it’s all compacted down to a small amount of screen space. It could really use a redesign to make it more spacious and friendlier.

Apparently creator Lynn Johnston has also been writing letters from the characters for a couple of years, I guess to flesh out the story beyond what appears in the strip. Although I enjoy the strip a lot (I own all the collections), that seems excessive to me; I’m only really interested in what actually appears in the strip. Rather than writing all those letters, wouldn’t it have been more fun (for the readers, and lucrative for her) to have spent that time drawing a FBoFW graphic novel or something?

The comments by others in Hernandez’ post are pretty harsh regarding FBoFW, not unjustifiably so. I think it’s still a fun strip, but it loses its way from time to time. I have read (as commented on in the thread) that Johnston plans to end the strip when Michael’s kids are about the same age as Michael and Deanna were when the strip began (probably in about a year), so I guess one could see the next year or so as being Johnson tying up loose ends. That could be a good thing… or a bad thing. (Having dealt with Jim’s stroke, I think it would be a very bad thing if she decides to squeeze his death into the strip’s final days.)

Mostly I wish Johnston would tone down the traumatic episodes and get the strip back to being a fun slice-of-life piece again.

Offseason Roundup: Giants

A look at the San Francisco Giants’ off-season moves.

The baseball offseason has been pretty lively so far, with a number of huge free agent deals being signed, in part because of the new labor contract between the owners and the players’ union. (Labor peace leads to some cost certainty, and therefore to teams being more willing to throw money around, you see.)

I mainly follow three teams these days: The Red Sox (my favorite team), and the Athletics and Giants (the local teams here in the Bay Area). As 2006 draws to a close, enough has happened to warrant looking at what these teams have been doing, and what I think about it.

I chose the Giants as my first stop because, well, I think they’ve had a terrible off-season, and the reasons why are pretty easy to see. I’m certainly not alone in that opinion, as San Jose Mercury News columnist Ann Killion feels much the same way, and has plenty of cutting words for how Giants general manager Brian Sabean has approached a team which really ought to be rebuilding.

Now, I’m not a big proponent of the concept of the success cycle concept in baseball: I don’t think it’s true that teams should be either contending or rebuilding. I think it’s more true that teams should be either contending or not contending. Contending teams may have the luxury of also being able to build for the future while they contend, but non-contending teams should be focusing on working their way back into contention, and be honest with themselves when they don’t have any real chance of contending and not spend resources on that fool’s errand.

After a half-decade of success (including a World Series appearance, losing to the Angels in 2002), the Giants are now a non-contending team. In 2006 they went 76-85, 11-1/2 games back in a relatively weak division. In 2005 they finished 75-87, 7 games back in an even weaker division. With a roster of old players, more than half their quality players up for free agency, and not much help coming from the farm system, this is a team which should not be considering contending in 2007. That means they should be signing inexpensive warm bodies with upside to fill the Major League roster rather than spending big bucks on old free agents, giving what prospects they have a long, hard look, and restocking the farm system with young players. This is a hard road to take, and it requires discipline on the part of both the GM and the owner, because it implies a loss of revenue due to the public stance of not contending. The advantage is that it will help the team contend sooner, and build a team whose quality players will be around longer.

The Giants have one big problem, though: Barry Bonds is nearly at the end of his career, but in the next year or two he’s likely to pass Hank Aaron for the career home run record. Bonds is still a good player and can help a good team, and despite his, uh, controversies, he’s likely to be a draw at the gate while he pursues the record.

Here’s how the Giants’ off-season has progressed:

Leaving:

  • Felipe Alou, manager (retired)
  • Jason Schmidt, SP (free agent, to the Dodgers)
  • Moises Alou, RF (free agent, to the Mets)
  • Steve Finley, CF (free agent)
  • Shea Hillenbrand, 1B (free agent)
  • Jamey Wright, SP (free agent)
  • Todd Greene, C (free agent)
  • Mike Stanton, RP (free agent, to the Reds)

Arriving:

  • Bruce Bochy, manager (from the Padres)
  • Rich Aurilia, 3B (free agent, from the Reds)
  • Ryan Klesko, 1B (free agent, from the Padres)
  • Bengie Molina, C (free agent, from the Blue Jays)
  • Dave Roberts, CF (free agent, from the Padres)

Returning:

  • Barry Bonds, LF (free agent, 1 year, $16M)
  • Ray Durham, 2B (free agent, 2 years, $14M)
  • Pedro Feliz, 3B (free agent, 1 year, $5.1M)
  • Steve Kline, RP (free agent, 2 years, $3.5M)

(Full free agent data can be found here, and recent Giants transactions here.)

The Bonds Factor aside, amidst all their free agents only Jason Schmidt seemed likely to reward a large contract, and even he was risky. Instead they brought back Bonds and Durham, re-signed OBP sinkhole Feliz, and brought in some other aging free agents. Their alternative was to let them all go, collect a bunch of draft picks in compensation, and re-stock the farm system. But instead they re-stocked for another run at, well, third place, I guess.

To be fair, the Giants have two unique problems: Bringing back Barry Bonds might well be worth at the gate the money they’ll be paying him – unless he gets hurt or collapses, that is. Moreover, had the Giants not shown an effort to contend in 2007, he might have signed elsewhere. The other is that they’re the one team in baseball paying off a privately-financed stadium, so they have bills to pay that other teams just don’t. But though throwing in the towel in December might clobber them financially, continuing to gray the team – metaphorically speaking – might merely delay that for a year or so.

Swapping Felipe Alou for Bruce Bochy as manager is probably a no-op. Both of them are in my mental “not bad, but not distinguished either” bucket as far as Major League managers go. Managers are rarely worth many games in the standings, though.

Realistically? The Giants will probably struggle to reach 75 wins in 2007, and that might cost Brian Sabean his job. Which might be a good thing for the franchise, although I think owner Peter Magowan bears some responsibility for the team’s current direction. The Giants probably should have said goodbye to Bonds (or at least shown a willingness to do so, and thus possibly signed him for a low price) and started rebuilding now, because this team is likely to be even worse in 2007 than it was in 2006.

In sum, the Giants are on the brink of a complete collapse, and soon they’ll need to look at themselves and make the moves that the Detroit Tigers made 4 years ago, rebuilding from scratch even if they don’t have much to rebuild with. While the Tigers seem an improbable success story, they’re preceded by the Indians and Braves of the late 80s/early 90s in adopting this philosophy, and are merely the latest example of the object lesson: If you’re not a contender, don’t try to contend. You’ll be better off in the long run.

This Week’s Haul

Comic books I bought the week of 20 December 2006.

  • Aquaman: Sword of Atlantis #47 (DC)
  • Fables #56 (DC/Vertigo)
  • 52 #33 of 52 (DC)
  • Red Menace #2 of 6 (DC/Wildstorm)
  • Supergirl and the Legion of Super-Heroes TPB vol 3: Strange Visitor From Another Century (DC)
  • Fantastic Four #541 (Marvel)
  • Ms. Marvel #10 (Marvel)
  • Athena Voltaire: The Collected WebComics (Ape Entertainment)

Writer Kurt Busiek and artist Butch Guice will be leaving Aquaman after #49, replaced by fantasy writer Tad Williams and artist Shawn McManus. This probably means that Busiek’s ongoing mysteries will either not be revealed, or will be revealed abruptly and rather lamely, which is a pity, since this storyline has really been all about the payoff. That said, I’ve been a fan of McManus’ art since his terrific work on Todd Klein’s Omega Men about 20 years ago, so his presence here may keep me reading the title after Busiek leaves.

Fables is a nifty little Christmas story. Willingham always seems to have a surprise up his sleeve. How does he do it?

Supergirl and the Legion of Super-Heroes is the third collection in Mark Waid and Barry Kitson’s reboot of the Legion title (you can also buy volumes one and two). The conceit in this volume is that Supergirl has somehow ended up in the 31st century, but has no memory of how she got there, and also believes that she’s dreaming it all. This makes her a little reckless, but she’s also powerful enough that it doesn’t really matter, although it does really annoy Light Lass. This is an enjoyable series with pretty good characterization, although the roster is so big that some characters get lost in the shuffle. Plus I really hate Supergirl’s bare-midriff costume, but that’s not Waid and Kitson’s fault, as it was foisted on them when the character was most recently relaunched.

I’m an old-old school Legion fan, and feel it went steadily downhill following the long-ago Ultra Boy/Reflecto story from the late 70s. And especially since Crisis on Infinite Earths it hasn’t had that special feeling that the original Legion had. But – much like Aquaman – DC keeps trying and many of their tries are worth reading, for a while, anyway. This is one of them. My biggest criticism is that I still find Kitson’s characters’ poses and expressions to be rather stiff.

Fantastic Four #541 is J. Michael Straczynski’s last as writer. It hasn’t been a distinguished run, but then he did have the handicap of having to write around the Civil War debacle. Straczynski’s basic problem in his Marvel work has been that he focuses so much on character that there’s not a whole lot of story, and it gets pretty boring. (His Squadron Supreme series is about two years old now and very little has happened.) Anyway, he finishes his run with a standalone story about the Thing leaving the US to avoid taking sides in the Civil War, and he ends up joining a French superhero team. It’s funny, which is a suitable departure for JMS, who seemed happiest on this title when he was writing about Ben Grimm.

I haven’t yet read the Athena Voltaire collection, but will probably get to it before Christmas.

Frozen Frisbee

My lesson from playing frisbee last night is that laying out when it’s about 40 degrees out is a good way to find out exactly how really goddamn cold the ground is. Gyaah!

Other than that it was a really good session. I accidentally stumbled into a way to improve the mechanics on my forehand throw, which led to much greater consistency, including being able to break the mark with it a couple of times. Very cool! We’ll see if my muscle memory can retain that improvement after the new year. Consistency in sports is mostly about mechanics: Being able to make the same motion in a repeatable manner. Ultimate throws in the wrench that you often need to repeat those mechanics while your body is in different positions, which really sucks for someone whose forehand mechanics are otherwise all screwed up, like mine are. (I have a very pretty follow-through, which is really just an indication of how unbalanced I am when I throw. But unless you know what to look for you probably wouldn’t notice. 🙂

This cold snap is amazing. It’s been below freezing each of the last three days when I come downstairs in the morning. I expect to see snow on the ground any day now, which might actually kill a few native Californians from simple horror-induced heart attacks.

Debbi seems to have caught the cold I had last week, and it’s taking longer for her to get over it. Unfortunately she hasn’t been able to take a day off from work, but she has been going home a little early. Hopefully another day or two and she’ll be over it. We’ve also got a bout of strep throat going around at work (or else it’s two independent events, since correlation doesn’t indicate causation and all that), but I think I’ve dodged it.

I’m just about ready for Christmas. And I’m definitely ready for a few extra days off.