Random Observations from This Weekend

For Jenny’s birthday weekend, we stayed at a hotel in Addison, enjoyed some great food, slept a lot, and enjoyed getting to talk for long periods. Here are a few observations/factoids/highlights/whatevers:

  1. Tokyo One makes really, really good sushi. It’s a sushi buffet in Addison. Although a bit expensive for dinner, the service is good and the quality and variety of the buffet are outstanding. On their website, you can print a coupon for 10 percent off and a free piece of birthday cake if you eat there within a week of your birthday.
  2. At Tokyo One, I tried several new and weird items: blue marlin (very tender and mild in flavor, although I’m not sure whether it’s a very sustainable food source), jellyfish (looks like grilled onions, tastes like generic seafood when doused in soy sauce like this was), lychee (a strange, brown, tropical fruit with hairlike projections on the outside and sweet white meat inside), and luo han guo or monkfruit (a light brown tropical fruit with sweet white meat inside much like lychee). I seem to have outgrown the picky phase from my younger years in which I would only eat toast and french fries.
  3. Marriott beds are very, very comfortable, almost Tempur-Pedic comfy. Overall, we were very impressed with the Marriott and would stay there again.
  4. I still think it’s cheap and lame to charge hotel guests to park at your hotel. I understand charging non-guests, especially in an urban environment with lots of business people and limited parking spaces, but a parking spot should be included in the price of my room. Both the Marriott and the Anatole charge for parking. The Omni Mandalay in Irving, however, does not.
  5. I continue to be amazed that guys in the men’s locker room at King Spa feel the need to cover their bits with a towel when they walk around, as if their bits are somehow different or special compared to ours. One guy used his hand. Really, dude? That’s what toddlers do when they have to pee.
  6. I saw a guy with a black tramp stamp. Is that weird, or is it just me?
  7. Male…um…grooming habits vary widely from man to man.
  8. I performed a simple heart rate experiment in the spa area. The main hot tubs were 106-108 degrees. The steam room was about 118, the dry sauna maybe 170. While my resting heart rate stays around 60, it rose to maybe 100 or more in those hot areas as my body tried to cool off. Then, after a few minutes in the 65-degree cold plunge, it dropped to around 50 as my body tried to preserve its heat.
  9. We had breakfast Sunday morning at Einstein Brothers, one of our favorite breakfast places. A man and his sevenish-year-old son were in line ahead of us. First, the dad yelled at him not to touch anything. Next, he criticized him in front of the cashier for putting his pants on backwards, something about being “incapable of seeing the tag in the back”. Finally, they sat down and ate breakfast together. I chose to sit on the other side of the room so I didn’t hear any more, snap, and go off on the guy. I’m not sure they said a word to each other as they ate. As a father myself, I certainly understand getting frustrated and impatient with one’s children and being less kind at times than one should, but tearing a kid down constantly doesn’t do either of you a bit of good.
  10. We walked into 300, an upscale bowling alley (ever heard of that?) in Addison. The furnishings are plush, the menu offers a much broader variety of food and drinks than a typical bowling alley, and giant screens above the pins were showing a Beyonce video and the Final Four game. We would’ve stayed for dinner and a couple of games, but it was really loud and ruined our Zen from King Spa. Maybe some other time. It would be fun with a group of friends.
  11. BJ’s Brewhouse makes a tasty berry cider, great crispy fries, and a really good club sandwich.

It Worked!

Yesterday numerous websites, including this one, joined together in the largest coordinated Internet blackout in history to protest two bills currently before Congress: Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) (House version) and PIPA (Senate) version. These bills would fundamentally change the Internet as we know it. SOPA would give the government the power to shut down any Internet site under the guise of copyright enforcement. For example, if someone complained to the government that AndyBox.com was violating his/her copyrighted material, the government could shut down the site immediately. The potential for abuse and government-sponsored censorship should be obvious. Online piracy and copyright infringement are problems that we need to address, but these bills are not the right approach.

The good news? Our protest and the lead-up publicity seem to have worked. Concerned citizens like you lit Washington up with emails and phone calls telling their representatives to vote NO on these bills. As a result, our representatives overall have a better understanding of the issues involved. According to an email I received, last week only 5 Senators publically opposed PIPA. Now that number is up to at least 35. The Obama Administration has expressed its disapproval of the bills, which suggests a potential veto even if Congress does pass the bills. The House has chosen to postpone action on the bill pending further debate and study. We haven’t won yet, but things are looking much better for all fans of a free Internet and the First Amendment.

If you haven’t already, please visit American Censorship to contact your representatives in the Senate and House and share your concerns.

Scammers

I am tired of getting ripped off.

Over the last six months, several people have tried to defraud or steal from me.

Credit Card Fraud

I got my first credit card at age 18. Despite running as many purchases as possible through my cards, including countless online transactions, I never had someone compromise my credit card until last year. I guess I was due. On two different occasions, someone somehow got my credit card number and started running up charges. In November, someone spent maybe $200 at a Speedway gas station in Illinois. (Using a stolen credit card number to buy gas? Really? Why not something fun like an Apple store?) Then in December, someone in Tokyo ran up several charges totaling several hundred dollars at a gas station (gas again – what gives?) plus some other businesses I couldn’t figure out.

I caught the charges quickly thanks to Mint.com. I use its iPhone app to check my credit card balances at least once a day, enabling me to know my balance and see what charges appear. Each time I found something fraudulent, I called Chase, and they took care of it. The first incident was extremely easy. The Tokyo incident took at least three phone calls and was much more frustrating, but I think everything is wrapped up now.

Any informed borrower is simply less vulnerable to fraud and abuse. — Alan Greenspan

I have no idea how the thieves got my numbers. I only enter my credit card numbers at reputable, secure sites. I don’t fall for phishing emails. Apparently, thieves sometimes use cameras or special equipment to snag numbers at gas station pumps, so maybe that’s what happened. I doubt I’ll ever know. But I’m thankful that Chase dismissed the charges instead of making me eat them.

Texting Fraud

One October day while I was sleeping after work, I was rudely awoken by a strange text. It looked like spam and said something like, “You have been signed up for LongLifeLoveTips for only $9.99/month. Text STOP to cancel.” Half-awake, I was afraid to respond to a spam text, thinking my response would only confirm that the spammer had found a legitimate mobile phone number. I ignore spam emails for the same reason, so I figured it worked the same way.

Then I got my AT&T bill and saw that my friends at LongLifeLoveTips really had charged me $9.99.

Foolishly, I ignored that charge as well and hoped they would just go away. I was wrong. Then I got another text from them in November saying that my subscription had been renewed for another $9.99. I was especially upset because I hadn’t gotten a single Long Life Love Tip. (Is that a fortune? Sex advice? Health tips? Lottery numbers? Digits for someone who wants a date?) This time I texted back with STOP and got a reply saying my “subscription” would be canceled.

Finally, I got it through my thick skull that I needed to overcome my reluctance to complain to customer service people and actually contact AT&T. Naturally, I took the easy road and emailed them through their website. (I also figured out who was behind the scam and sent them a strongly worded email. I’m sure they repented immediately.)

Emailing AT&T actually worked. They responded within a day and put a credit on my bill the next month for both charges.

Auto Shop Fraud

Recently my car told me it was time to change the oil. Instead of standard service intervals, my Honda Fit (and many other Honda models) has a Maintenance Minder system that monitors the condition of my oil and keeps track of its remaining useful life. Once it gets down to 15 percent, I get a warning light. Cool, eh? It usually works out to around 7500 miles.

Rather fail with honor than succeed by fraud. — Sophocles

I went to the local City Garage, which has treated us well in the past with no upselling pressure. This time the manager was there instead of the guy we normally talk to. She tells me my oil is very dirty and a quart low and recommends an engine oil flush. Never mind that I just checked the oil a week or so ago and its level was fine. I’ve never found the oil below full in 5.5 years of ownership. The color was brown when I checked it, but I would hardly call it “very dirty”. But the flush sounded like a good idea since I was approaching 70,000 miles and had never done it before. (turns out that was a foolish decision that did nothing but add $20 to my bill)

It got better after that. She asked (accusingly?) whether I’d gotten my oil changed somewhere else since I came in last. My windshield sticker said I was a few thousand miles overdue. I said no, I followed the manufacturer’s recommendations and the Maintenance Minder. She explained that the Maintenance Minder was set up for standard conditions rather than severe conditions, and that around here I should use the severe maintenance schedule due to my short trips and our “extreme heat and cold”. Yes, she actually referred to extreme cold in Dallas, where we haven’t dropped below 25 all winter and probably wouldn’t. We argued about it briefly, with me explaining that my driving pattern matched the normal schedule. She obviously wasn’t convinced but wisely decided not to press the matter too much.

The kicker was the air filter. The technician working my car brought my air filter in, and the manager said it looked dirty and recommended changing it. The filter is 5 months old. I replaced it in August 2011, according to the record I checked when I got home. I told her I thought I had changed it pretty recently. At that point she looked closer at it and then explained to the technician that she could still see through the filter, so it was okay.

Wow.

So we’re now in the market for yet another oil change shop. I could avoid getting ripped off by doing it myself, but I just don’t enjoy working on cars. Maybe I’ll try Christian Brothers and see if they live up to their name. Do you recommend anyone?

Overrated and Underrated

I haven’t stirred up enough trouble lately, so let’s fix that. Here is my completely subjective list of some of the most overrated and underrated brands/companies I have found.

OVERRATED

  • Raising Cane’s – People talk about how great their chicken is, and their stores keep popping up around here. Although I’ve never eaten there, Jenny and several friends agreed that the chicken is mediocre, the ONE available sauce is weird, and the menu is limited to two items: the aforementional mediocre chicken fingers and average french fries. Give me Chicken Express or KFC any day.
  • Joe T. Garcia’s in Fort Worth – Jenny’s sister LOVES this place. I must admit the huge ranch-style house that was turned into a sprawling Mexican restaurant does overflow with character, and the servers are very nice. Unfortunately, nothing else about the place appeals to me. It’s a Mexican restaurant that doesn’t serve an enchilada dinner. Are you kidding me? On my last visit, I ordered chicken fajitas instead. The fajitas were pretty good, but the salsa didn’t do much for me, and the rice was dry and overcooked. The restaurant is so busy that waits of up to two hours are not uncommon, and it’s so noisy that conversation is difficult, especially when dining in a large group. Finally, their cash-only, no-check splitting policy makes payment quite difficult for those of us who like to dine with other parties and get airline miles for our meals. Finding a better Mexican place is extremely easy to find around here.
  • Dublin Dr Pepper – Sacrilege, some of you say! Take a deep breath. I like Dublin Dr Pepper, too. I just don’t understand why people idolize it so much. The Dublin version uses cane sugar instead of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) like normal Dr Pepper. The taste is slightly different, but the difference is hard to describe. To me, it does taste slightly better, and the HFCS haters believe it’s healthier. But now that the Dublin plant has been forced to stop using the cane sugar recipe by Dr Pepper corporate, Dublin fans are buying up supplies like bottled water before a hurricane. Apparently one auction had bids above $8 per bottle for the stuff. If I pay $8 for a bottle of ANYTHING, it better include some fermented grape juice.
  • Starbucks – As I’ve noted here before, I am not a fan of Starbucks. It’s a nice place to hang out if you can find a place to sit. It’s convenient because they have stuck a store seemingly on every street in America. But the coffee just isn’t good. Regular coffee is bitter and needs tons of help to become palatable. The specialty drinks are too sweet, too high in calories, underfilled, and/or overpriced. And despite their claims to be green, they serve coffee in disposable paper cups wrapped in a paper holder with a lid unless you specifically request a “for-here” ceramic mug, which they don’t even advertise. This Seattle company kills an awful lot of trees.
  • In-N-Out – When In-N-Out announced its expansion to the DFW area, fans flipped out. I’ve been to In-N-Out a few times on business trips with Jenny out west. They make a decent burger and fries, I’ll give them that much. But the hullabaloo and huge lines just don’t match the product. One opened a couple months ago near our church, and we couldn’t find a table for Sunday dinner even weeks after the opening. It’s just a burger. I’ve had better at Braum’s. Moo-Yah. Even McDonald’s if you get one of their premium burgers. I think for many of the In-N-Out fanatics, it’s not so much the food as the connection to their past. Many are West Coast transplants, and hitting In-N-Out is like going home for an hour.
  • Dallas Cowboys – Sorry guys, I know bashing the Cowboys is a hobby for at least half the local population, but let’s face it – the Cowboys don’t deserve the attention lavished upon them. I heard recently that the Dallas Cowboys are the second most valuable sports franchise in the world after the Manchester United soccer team. How is that possible for a team that has won a single playoff game in the last 15 years and is famous for not living up to its potential? I’ll always be a Cowboys fan whether they rock or suck, but it’s time to either step up and play like The Most Valuable Sports Team in America or to give another team that title.

UNDERRATED

  • Andre Sparkling Wine – No, it’s not technically Champagne since it doesn’t originate in the Champagne region of France. It doesn’t appear in rap music videos. Mark Cuban doesn’t serve it to his players at their NBA championship celebration. But for $5-6 a bottle, you can have a very tasty and very affordable sparkling wine for everyday celebrations. Our favorite is the Extra Dry variety, which is sweeter than the better-known Brut.
  • Buon Giorno – If you want to sit down and enjoy good coffee from a real coffee cup, head to Colleyville and visit this local coffee shop. It has the amenities you like at Starbucks – pleasant coffee smell, comfy chairs, free WiFi, live music some nights – plus great coffee and the ability to buy ground and whole bean coffee that is freshly roasted right there in the store.
  • Carnival Cruise Lines – I’ve heard people deride Carnival as a fleet of party ships with riffraff clientele and too many kids, dismissing it as a step below the other lines. After cruising on Carnival twice, Royal Caribbean once, and Norwegian once, I found Carnival to be my favorite. Maybe it was the time of year (mostly fall plus one in August), but we had a fabulous time with great service and had no major complaints about our fellow cruisers.
  • AT&T – It seems that everyone loves to hate AT&T, from its own customers to those of other carriers. Poor customer service seems to be the most frequent complaint. But I’ve been with AT&T for several years now, and I don’t think I’ve ever had a bad customer service experience. The reps in their stores are very nice and helpful. Their technicians show up on time for TV and internet installations and do fast, quality work. When I had a problem with fraudulent text charges, I emailed them, and they took care of it with no questions asked. My only complaint is the occasional dropped call on my iPhone, but I hate talking on the phone anyway, so who cares? =)
  • Minivans – People mock them, even people who own them. Toyota even created a “Swagger Wagon” ad campaign playing on the idea. People say they ugly, big, and most of all uncool. Granted, our Grand Caravan isn’t exactly a Ferrari. But you know what is cool? Being able to drive around my wife, both kids in bulky carseats, all our stuff, plus three grandparents in the back while we do something fun as a family. We have all the room we need, plenty of power, and helpful extras like power sliding doors and tailgate. There’s a reason minivans are popular for families – THEY GET IT DONE.

Now it’s your turn. Agree or disagree with my lists? Have some others to add? I want to hear from you.

Random Thoughts

I’m interested in lots of things today, so fire up your randommeter.

  • End of Iraq War – Obama announced today that virtually all U.S. troops will return from Iraq by year’s end. I didn’t like this war when it began. I voted for Kerry and Obama largely because they promised to end it. And now it’s almost over. Is Iraq better off? In some ways, yes. In other ways, no. Is our country safer? I doubt it. Was our “victory” worth over 4000 American lives, countless Iraqi lives, $750 billion, and the huge strain it placed on our military and military families? I don’t think so. I’m not a fan of everything Obama has done (and left undone), but he delivered on this one. Now, if we could do the same with Afghanistan…
  • 33 Years – My birthday is tomorrow. I’ll be 33 years old. Supposedly that’s how old Jesus was upon his death. And He didn’t really start his ministry until age 30. So he changed the world in just 3 years. I’ll try to remember that next time I start feeling like the big kahuna.
  • Quit Sending Your Leftovers to Foreign Countries – Few things opened my eyes as much this week as Haiti Doesn’t Need Your Old T-Shirt. It describes how well-meaning Westerners destroy local economies in foreign countries by flooding their markets with unwanted goods. Free or super-cheap Western goods undercut the local merchants, growers, and manufacturers and make it much harder for them to make a living. You know how Americans are complaining about being unable to compete with the low pay and poor working conditions in foreign countries? This is a similar situation, only reversed. According to this article, the best way to help struggling people in other countries is to pump money into their economies rather than goods. Why? They can spend that money and move it around, where it works like rising water in a dry marina, raising all boats together.
  • Just Let It Go – I’m fighting the temptation to own and solve other people’s problems. From what I’ve seen and heard, other people struggle with that, too. Perhaps you’ve might have noticed that I can be a bit opinionated? It’s not necessarily bad to be opinionated, but it does give me the tendency to want to jump in with solutions when other people might not want my help. People don’t usually like that. It also stresses me out because I get frustrated if they don’t follow my wonderful advice. It’s so easy to forget that there’s only one person I can control – not my coworkers, not my wife, not my children, not my friends or family, just ME. And I don’t always do even that little job all that well. So I’m trying to stop getting so worked up about what other people do, say, and think.
  • Rangers – Nolan predicted Rangers in 6. Who am I to argue with that? So as of now, that means we take two of three in Arlington and then wrap it up Wednesday night back in St. Louis. But for the sake of the fans, I hope we win in five so it’ll happen at home. Imagine the wild rumpus at Rangers Stadium Monday night if we can pull that off.

Water is Basic Aims for Self-Sufficiency

Water is Basic, an IBC-backed African organization, drills wells in South Sudan to provide clean water to thirsty people. In three years, Water is Basic has drilled over 350 wells, providing clean water to hundreds of thousands of people. One of the things I love about WIB is its focus on local leadership and labor rather than outsiders. People from our church currently provide much of the funding and some consulting and guidance, but it’s really a South Sudanese group.

Recently I was thrilled to read the latest update from WIB. WIB has developed a plan to achieve self-sufficiency through various types of internal/local funding within two years. In other words, it won’t need Western money anymore, although I doubt the leaders would turn it down. Through a combination of local investment, a small contribution from each community for well maintenance, and generating revenue by drilling some wells for commerical purposes for a fee to subsidize those built for residential purposes, WIB hopes to be in the black before too long.

Bravo to Water is Basic for providing an outstanding example of how successful an African non-governmental organization can be.