Tales and thoughts from the founder of NormSoft (maker of Pocket Tunes), working and living in St. Croix, USVI

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Dumping glue into the pool

We ran out of water!

Gerald was filling the pool, and the pump lost prime. After trying to re-prime it a few times, we realized that the cistern was empty. Doh!

We switched to our 2nd small cistern, which will last us a month or so without rain for the 2 of us. Too bad we have some guests coming next week, doubling or tripling our water usage. We may have to order some water, which is delivered in a large truck that holds 3,000 gallons or more. Average price is $0.01 to $0.03 per gallon, depending on the quality, last I checked.

So with a 75,000 gallon cistern, how did we run out of water? The problem is the pool. It's got lots of small leaks. We were unable to locate the leaks by dropping food coloring in the pool, but we were losing close to 2" of water per day.

We talked to the former owners of the house, and it turns out our house is located directly over a fault line for the neighborhood. We get lots of minor tremors in the Caribbean all the time, and they eventually lead to cracks in the pool, walls, and anything concrete. (In fact, one day last year, I walked into the guesthouse to find that a dozen tiles had popped up, making a small tent shape! Our best guess is that there was a little tremor that put pressure on the tiles, and they popped.)

So the only real solution is to regularly use this stuff that I think is called Leak Stop or something like that. It's basically a bottle of viscous glue that you dump into the pool. You take out all the filters and run the pump to circulate it, and it gradually gets into the cracks and solidifies. Obviously you can't use the pool for a few days while this is going on!

So we did that 2 days ago, and so far so good. The pool is losing a lot less water than before, so hopefully our water woes will be solved. We still lose a little bit, and hopefully that's mostly due to evaporation. We're at the top of the hill so the wind will evaporate more water than you'd think, especially if the water is warm, which it usually is due to our solar pool heater.

Keep your fingers crossed; let's see if it holds!

Damn volcanoes

We woke up this morning to find everything outside covered in a thin layer of gritty dust. It turns out Montserrat had a partial collapse that caused dust to spew into the atmosphere and make its way to the Virgin Islands.

This pesky volcano has troubled us before. When we first flew down to St. Croix 3 years ago in June, Montserrat had errupted, and American Eagle cancelled all flights to St. Croix from San Juan because the ash in the jet stream was dangerous to their planes. Of course they didn't compensate us for the night's stay in San Juan (which ended up costing $400 due to all the hotels being full for a large motorcycle conference) because it was an act of God. Fair enough, I suppose; bad luck on our part.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Other Ways to Get to St. Croix

Since I've sworn off American for now, I've been doing some research on how to get off the rock (aka St. Croix). I figured this info may be useful to people trying to get to St. Croix, too, so here it is... Note: All the prices are estimates based on August 2008; I'm sure they will change quite a bit through the year.

LIAT Airlines: This is a Caribbean-only airline. They fly to pretty much all of the islands. From St. Croix, you can get to St. Maarten directly (see my note about AirFrance below for getting to/from Europe!). Here is a great map of LIAT's destinations. I've heard that they are never on time, so book extra time if possible. 20% of their flights are late, and 9% of them are excessively late, according to www.flightstats.com. About $90-$110 each way from St. Croix to St. Maarten. Delay statistics from STX to SXM

Delta: Delta flies to St. Croix direct from Atlanta every Saturday. If you are coming and/or going from/to a major city on a Saturday, chances are you can connect through Atlanta and get to St. Croix with just one hop. Prices run about $521 round-trip from Atlanta to St. Croix.

Cape Air: You can get tickets from St. Croix to San Juan ($120-$170 one way) or St. Thomas ($85-$100 one way). It's a tiny Cessna plane, and I've heard people call it "Cape Fear", but they're professional and I've heard lots of good things about them as well. From San Juan or St. Thomas, you can catch flights on a whole bunch of other airlines. The obvious ones (United, US Airways, Continental, etc.) are available through Expedia and other travel websites. But there are a few good airlines that aren't covered by most of the travel websites, so I've listed them below.

Seaborne Airlines: This sea plane has lots of flights between St. Croix and St. Thomas or Puerto Rico. They are not at the airport, so you will need to take a taxi if you are connecting to another airline. In St. Croix, they leave from Christiansted. Between St. Croix and St. Thomas, fares run $70-$115 one-way. St. Croix to San Juan: $115 to $170 one-way.

Jet Blue: From San Juan, you can fly to lots of other cities on Jet Blue. Check around for specials; sometimes you will see fares as low as $100 each way from San Juan to Boston or other major cities.

Spirit Airlines: From San Juan or St. Thomas, Spirit flies to Ft. Lauderdale. From there, you can take Spirit to lots of other US, Central, and South American destinations. You can also hop on one of the many discount airlines that fly to Ft. Lauderdale. Flights are reasonable, but they tack on dozens of nickel and dime fees, $10 for aisle or window seats, checked baggage fees, etc. However, they often have a "Big Front Seat" available for a reasonable premium. It's a first-class size seat, but at much cheaper prices than you'd pay for first class on other airlines (there is no additional service; just extra room). San Juan to Ft. Lauderdale usually runs around $125 one-way for regular seats or $140 for the big seats.

AirTran: From San Juan, you can get direct flights to Orlando, Atlanta, and Baltimore, and from there you can get to many other places. With web specials, you can get to Orlando for as cheap as $90 one-way. Normal flights seem to be about $100-$260 depending on how much advance notice you give.

Getting to/from Europe: From some of the other Caribbean Islands, you can get flights directly to European cities for decent prices. For example, you can get from Paris to St. Maarten on AirFrance for around 1,000 Euro. Sometimes this is cheaper than going through Miami or Boston. Just be careful if connecting on LIAT because I've heard their flights are never on time. Also, to book the other direction (from St. Croix to France), you have to book on their French website: www.airfrance.fr. Hope you speak a little French. I haven't actually completed a ticket, so I'm not sure if you need a French address to buy a ticket there or not.

I haven't looked in much detail for other European flights, but I believe there are some other direct flights to Spain and/or England from the Caribbean.

Hope this info is helpful to someone!

Saturday, July 26, 2008


The best thing about bonking (or even just strenuous prolonged exercise) is the condition that I am going to call "bonkalicious". I did a Google search, and it seems I am the first to coin this term for this particular meaning...

If you don't know what bonking is, follow the link to Wikipedia. It's not what you may think, you people with dirty minds!

When you have bonked or have been cycling for at least several hours, your taste buds miraculously modify themselves. Suddenly, even the most mundane foods taste like gourmet meals. (And other foods that are normally tasty start to taste like something you would line a litter box with.)

Let me give an example. I did a 300k (185 mile) randonneuring ride 3 years ago with my friend Jeff. At the 100 mile mark, they had a nice little lunch stop. I made myself a ham and salami sandwich with mayonnaise. Just a piece of Wonder bread, generic salami, baked ham, american cheese, and Hellman's. I swear it was the best sandwich I've ever eaten.

At the last rest stop of the ride, they had some summer sausage - you know, that questionable meat stick that doesn't require refrigeration. I couldn't stop eating it. I swear there was some kind of drug in it. It was bonkalicious.

I'm sure all other cyclists are aware of this effect, but I thought I would put a name to it.

I experienced this phenomenon today to some extent. I had a flat tire half-way through my 35 mile ride. I have been eating a light breakfast before my rides to try to lose weight, and then timing my rides so that I don't run out of steam but burn into some of my reserves. (This is how I lost 60 lbs in 6 months several years ago.) Unfortunately, the flat tire threw me off, and the 15-20 minutes in the hot sun to fix it dried me out. I ended up bonking about 3 miles from home. I had to stop and walk up the last little hill to our house because I felt I might faint. Ooops, dumb mistake. I should have brought some food.

But, the benefit of this mistake was that any leftovers I had in the fridge were bonkalicious. I couldn't get enough 3-day old food for my lunch!

Friday, July 25, 2008

Won't ever be using American Airlines again

I'm sure many people won't think this is interesting news, what with the implosion of airline profits lately. But it just goes to prove that the airlines don't have a clue, and their negative profits are due to their own failures. Rather than creating reasons NOT to fly them (e.g. baggage surcharges, rude flight attendants, poor customer support), they should be creating reasons that I should fly with them, ESPECIALLY reasons that don't really cost them anything.

From St. Croix, it's pretty hard to get a flight on any airline other than American, but it is possible to fly on Delta, Cape Air, and sometimes Continental. So I have been booking all of my flights on AA for the past three years while I've lived here. I travel on average once a month, so understandably, I've accumulated quite a lot of frequent flyer miles and been giving Platinum status. We also often fly employees here for meetings, and they all use American for their travel to St. Croix and some trips elsewhere. So you think American would love me by now. Not so.

My last three legs of flights through American have all been canceled, each one requiring an overnight stay, wasting nearly 72 hours of my time. That, alone, is maybe forgivable as bad luck until you realize that all 3 flights that were canceled were canceled due to mechanical problems. Completely their fault. (On one of them, an airline mechanic for a different airline was seated next to me. When he heard what the problem was, he told me it was a non-issue and that it was well within tolerances and pilots just liked to complain about it all the time. They canceled the flight anyway.) American "compensated" me by giving me 3,000 miles for the first canceled flight, nothing for the 2nd, and 5,000 for the 3rd. That's a total value of $200 dollars, valuing my 72 lost hours at $2.78/hr. Gee, thanks.

Understandably, my next flight is booked through a different airline.

But here's where it gets worse. I called American to give them a chance to win back my business. I have to imagine that customers usually don't do this after being screwed 3 times in a row. After being transfered 3 times by sympathetic CSRs, I finally spoke with John Lindsy in the "Executive Office". I explained my situation (3 canceled flights in a row, travel 10-12 times per year, 10 employees that fly occasionally), and I made a simple request. I'm already well into Platinum status with American; give me a complimentary upgrade to Executive Platinum, just for the remainder of the plan year (8 months). It has a few extra benefits that don't really cost AA anything; priority boarding and upgrades (space available - so those seats would be empty anyway), etc. and I would give American another shot.

His response was quite simple: "No," he said. "If I give you Executive Platinum status, I'd have to give it to everyone." "No", I responded, "only to Platinum members who have gotten canceled three times in a row and use your airline exclusively." "Well, there are many people in that situation, so I can't grant you that request." "Wow, I'm very disappointed. What are you willing to offer me to convince me to try American again?" "We've already given you 8,000 miles. That's all that we can compensate you." "You can take back those 8,000 miles if you want to offer me something else; frankly they don't even come close to making me want to try American again." "You can donate those miles to charity if you don't want them."

Wow, just wow... I thought American's frequent flyer program was good, but it's all just a game. They are not interested in retaining their regular customers, even with simple and cheap requests.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Apple's MobileMe not ready for prime time

I signed up for MobileMe today, and it just plain doesn't work.

After futzing with it for nearly an hour, it finally synced my data from my Mac to me.com. Before that, me.com just showed a blank calendar and contacts.

But then, trying to open the calendar or contacts was excruciating. It sat there for minutes and still hadn't drawn all the appointments. And while it's doing this, there's no indication that it's busy, and you can't click on anything. Totally useless. And this is with Safari, Apple's own browser.

Immediately canceled my account. Maybe I'll try MobileMe 2.0, but I'll stick with Plaxo for now for calendar and contact sync... Apple's trying to do too much.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Answering Customer Support

There was a discussion on a mailing list I'm subscribed to where developers were complaining that they couldn't tell if a customer contacting them about their iPhone app is a paying customer or not. This was seen as such a bad thing that developers were discussing ways of creating unique IDs for each customer that would be required to submit a support request. Here is my response.

Shameless plug: Check out our new iPhone/iPod Touch app: Mecrets password manager with the really cool Touch Lock interface!

Maybe I'm being slow, but under what condition would it ever make sense NOT to reply to a support email about your product? From what I can tell, there are a few different reasons someone could email you:

1. They haven't bought your product but are interested, so they ask a question. If you give them an answer, they are more likely to buy your product, so you are increasing your revenue. In addition, you learn about what people are confused about, so you can improve your description and other marketing materials to minimize pre-sales questions and maximize buyers.

2. They have already bought it and have a problem/question. If you answer them, they are more likely to be happy with the product, tell their friends about it, buy upgrades, etc. Not to mention less likely to request a refund.

3. They are not serious but have some time to kill and want to annoy you. In my experience, this is an extremely rare case, and you can easily pick out these customers because they are rude or make ridiculous feature requests.

So why would you want to force your customers to go through the pain of typing in some multi-digit code just to ask a question?

If you want to reduce support, make your product better. It's pretty obvious, but I'll give an example: we had several releases of Pocket Tunes where we focused on all the support issues that kept coming up. After those releases went out, support volume went down dramatically.

Or you can just commit yourself to being a bargain basement developer with no support, which is a fine strategy because you can sell to people who want cheap software that kind of works.

But then again, I'm happy if everyone else gives terrible support to customers because that's another differentiator for us. :)

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Gnarly, dude

Apparently I'm "gnarly". That's what the guy in the convertible said.

I rented a bike in Maui a few days ago. I asked the bike shop employee whether I should attempt to ride up Haleakala. He said that if I could do the West Maui loop, I could do Haleakala no problem.

So today I attempted the west Maui loop. (Here is the hard part of the loop.) I failed to complete it on a technicality...

After a few modest climbs approaching the north shore of west Maui, I ran into some cyclists taking some photos, so I stopped to take my own photos and chat. They warned me about "The Wall", which is a hill coming up that's around a 15% gradient. But they assured me that it was the hardest hill; once you get past that, it's not bad.

I willed myself to prepare for the climb, and when I saw it coming around the bend, I pulled out every stop. I felt strong, but I could only make it up halfway and I walked the rest. At the top of the hill, an older gentleman at the side of the road held up his thumb for a ride. I told him to hop on.

The north shore of Maui is desolate and beautiful. Picture a narrow one-lane road winding through the mountainous coast, going from sea level to 1,000+ ft and back. In many places, the edge of the road drops off at an extreme angle with no guard rails. There are dozens of signs reading "falling rock", and they aren't kidding. In a few places, the road was completely blocked with dirt and rock. The views of Molokai and Haleakala were beyond description; it's something you can only experience by being there. Though I took many pictures, they come nowhere near the experience.

It was right about when I was sipping my last drop of energy drink (and realizing that I had 15 miles to go to the next big town) that I passed a sign for the "smoothie bus 1 mile". Unfortunately the smoothie bus was closed, as was the next little shop with a sign for shave ice. Luckily Lorraine Shave Ice in Kahakuloa had a "We're Open" sign. I pulled in and enjoyed a wonderful mango shave ice, sampled some toasted coconut, and chatted with some other cyclists stopped here. The shop owner (Lorraine?) was nice enough to have a gallon of ice-cold water sitting out for cyclists!

Amazingly, the man who had been hitch hiking showed up a few minutes later! He calls himself "King of the Road" and spends his days hitch hiking around the island and meeting new people. What a life!

It was after I'd started up the hill past town that the convertible passed me. The road was barely wide enough for a car, and the right side was covered in gravel that had fallen from the hill above me. To the right was a cliff going straight up, and to the left was another cliff going straight down, giving a lovely view of the little village I'd just stopped in. There were hardly any cars on the north shore, probably because the rental agency prohibits you from taking their cars here! But the one that passed me had a young guy and woman in it. I rode in the gravel to let him by and as he did, he shook his head and said, "You're gnarly, man!" I just laughed and continued cycling.

Little did I know that this hill went unrelenting up from 0 to 1,000 ft. I was nearly toast by the time I hit the top. I called Gerald and told him I'd be a few hours late and mentioned that it looked like a nice downhill coming up. That was an understatement. It was a screaming downhill section curving down the mountain that reminded me of the descents I enjoyed in France. With few cars on the road and not too much sand or gravel, I had a blast screaming around corners and enjoying the wind and views.

The rest of the trip was nondescript. I stopped in town for a donut. Back on the highway, I enjoyed a strong tailwind and slight downhill for 5 miles! I hardly had to pedal, which made it all the harder when the road finally flattened out.

For the technicality... I was 5 miles from the hotel, and the breakdown lane was closed for construction. Not wanting to risk joining the 45mph traffic in the one and only lane, I called Gerald and had him pick me up.

As far as I'm concerned, I made it. Haleakala or bust later this week!