Thursday, January 13, 2011

Things That Stink

Enough with posts about how much I like books! Let's talk about some things that aren't very good!

Clipper Direct

I love the idea of the Clipper Card, a contactless trans-agency public transit card. It finally solves the problem of navigating the extremely Balkanized public transit districts in the Bay Area. It also has a decent web site where you can buy passes and cash with your credit card, and set up Auto-Load to automatically replenish your card when it's running low.

I also love transit benefits. Some companies, mine included, offer subsidized payments for taking public transit. We used to get these as checks, which were a little annoying, and became extremely annoying once Caltrain laid off their ticket offices. It seemed dumb for them to send us paper checks that we'd need to trudge over to Walgreens when they could just load the funds on our cards.

Well, we switched over to Clipper Direct, and I'm starting to regret it - it's awful! My specific complaints include:
  • There doesn't seem to be any way to use your benefits as a partial payment on an order. I used to be able to pay for part of a monthly Caltrain pass with my commuter checks, and pay for the rest with my credit card. Now, if I want to buy a monthly pass, I need to put the whole amount on my credit card. That means that I can only use my commuter benefits for 8-ride tickets and cash.
  • On a related note, you need to use all of your benefits each month, they don't carry over. If they DID carry over, at least I'd be able to buy a monthly pass every other month or so.
  • There's no AutoLoad feature for Clipper Direct, which baffles and infuriates me. That means you need to regularly monitor your account to make sure  you hold sufficient funds.
  • You're not allowed to buy BART High Value tickets with Clipper Direct. Why not, you ask? Excellent question! Why not, Clipper?
  • The web site is confusing and contradictory. If you try to buy a recurring Caltrain monthly pass, it will say, "You will need to pay for this with your personal credit card." However, there's no option to pay with a personal credit card for the recurring pass.
  • On a related note, you're not allowed to place recurring orders for passes, just for cash. Good luck figuring this out from their (awful, awful) web site.
  • I've contacted them about some of my specific questions and problems (in much more polite language than I'm using here), and have never gotten a reply.

SONY Customer Service

I recently picked up a bunch of new electronic stuff, and have generally been very pleased with the quality. However, I've been disappointed at the opaque and unhelpful customer service any time that I've needed to contact SONY.

In the first part, I needed an upgrade to the software for a new receiver that I purchased. Fortunately, this is upgradeable at home, without requiring a trip to a service center or shipping it in. Unfortunately, it requires a connection over a digital optical cable to a CD player, which isn't part of my setup. Fortunately, they will send you a free upgrade kit that includes the special CD to play and a cable. Unfortunately, after you order this, they will cancel your order without any explanation or recourse. If you think this was a mistake, and re-order it, the order will just as mysteriously be canceled again several days later, again with no hint as to what was the problem.

I was also supposed to receive vouchers for some free PSN games in the box of something I ordered. It didn't have any vouchers. Nobody takes any responsibility for this, with the SONY customer reps pointing to PlayStation, and PlayStation pointing to the SONY reps. It's infuriating.

Hmmm.... I think that might be it, actually. I guess that isn't too bad.


Next up: things that seem like they should stink but may not as badly as I would have thought:

I'm cautiously hopeful about the state of Californian politics. I don't want to minimize the awful situation we're in; we've been living far beyond our means for years, and readjusting will be extremely painful. It's early yet, but I feel like Governor Brown is on the right track for restoring some sort of sanity.

Part of what's funny is that Brown's proposed solutions are close to those of Schwarzenegger's: extending several "temporary" taxes, cutting from the university system, cutting salaries of government employees, etc. However, these have a chance of actually passing with Brown's backing. He has the political capital and trust of important interest groups in California, and so he's in a position to cajole them to go along.

In contrast... well, I have mixed feelings about Arnold's tenure. I don't think he's quite as bad as his final approval rating of around 15%. He was pretty popular in the good years, and very unpopular in the bad years. He did some really good stuff during his tenure, notably his championing of AB32, the climate change bill, which he's clearly claiming now as his legacy.

Still, the main problem with Arnold was that he couldn't get the tough choices done. Due to our wacky budgeting process in California, any budget needs the support of the Democrats (who hold large majorities in both houses), as well as the Republicans (a small minority). Traditionally, Democratic governors have unified their parties behind them, and worked to bring over a few Republican votes by appealing to them (i.e., bribing) on a one-to-one basis. Republican governors can bring together their parties, and negotiate on their party's behalf with the majority Democrats; that will mean giving up on some issues and cutting deals, but they have the faith of their party that they got the best deal possible.

In contrast, the Republican party never really embraced Arnold. Because he was put in power through the special election and bypassed their primary process, most California Republicans continued to see him as a Democrat in sheep's clothing (to borrow a vivid image from Carly Fiorina). That means that instead of a two-way negotiation between parties, every year turned into a three-way negotiation between Democrats, Republicans, and Arnold. Even when Arnold and the Democrats came to an agreement on something, it didn't matter, because he couldn't deliver any Republican votes with him. And on the rare occasions when Democrats and Republicans came to an accord, Arnold often interjected himself, seeking to burnish his own political star by trashing the efforts of others.

That's what's most frustrating: Arnold loves being an executive, but even the governor is part of a legislative process, and it's absolutely impossible to accomplish important things on your own. He set a bad tone from the beginning, by denigrating members of the Legislature as "girly men" and railing against their ineffectualness. Governing this mad state is hard enough without unnecessarily creating enemies.

Now that we're in the Brown Years (2.0), our problems haven't gotten any better, but the solutions may be in our reach. Labor interests (especially teachers and nurses) will trust Brown to make difficult choices. If he proposes cuts to their programs... well, that's because there aren't better choices available to him, not because he wants to strike out at his political enemies.

Anyways, that's my hope! I tend to be optimistic these days, perhaps undeservedly so. Still, it does feel like we may get some grown-up treatment from our government leaders. It's now up to us voters to prove that we can be mature enough to make the necessary difficult political and financial choices that are headed our way.

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