The Useless Parcel Service

Updated August 11, 2016: See new comments at the end.


One thing that being an Amazon Prime member teaches you is how good the various shipping companies are at getting packages delivered to the right place, at the right time. Amazon uses pretty much all the options, including, recently, their own Amazon Logistics delivery vans. From all those deliveries, the ones that regularly arrive late, or not at all, are the ones carried by UPS. Amazon Logistics and OnTrac are always on time or even early (often next day instead of two days).

In the last month, we’ve placed 8 Amazon orders. Two shipped by USPS (arrived one day early), two UPS (both late), and the other four came with Amazon Logistics (two early, two on time).

Second Day Air

The first late delivery was ordered using the Prime 2 day delivery. On a Wednesday morning. Normally, that would mean delivery by Friday. But in the world of UPS second day air, it meant Monday. And late Monday too (almost up to the 8pm deadline). That, but my calculation, is 5 days after the order. They dispute this by claiming they don’t count weekend days. Well I do, and so do their competitors who happily deliver Saturday & Sunday. 

Here’s the rub though, early on Sunday morning I ordered another item from Amazon, using prime 2 day shipping. It was delivered early on Monday morning. One day early and several hours before the order from the previous Wednesday. But it was delivered by Amazon Logistics, who apparently can not only move packages over the weekend, but deliver early when they can. Even the regular postal service delivers over the weekend, Sunday included. In fact, many of my Amazon two day orders arrive on Sunday via USPS. But not UPS. 

Next Day Guaranteed

Last night I needed a micro USB to USB C adapter quickly. I ordered them & paid extra for the next day delivery upgrade (still cheaper than buying one from a Target or Best Buy, but the shipping was almost as much as the adapters). Today at lunch time I received an alert from Amazon that my delivery had been delayed: 

So, somehow UPS managed to send the package to the wrong place, but South San Francisco isn’t far away. And that notice still suggests it might arrive today. Their own website seems less confident, but still not definitive that the package won’t make it on time:


At least I ordered mid-week too. Otherwise that one day delay might be a three day delay. 

Given that I’d not received any updates by 5pm, I sent an email asking whether there was any chance of it being delivered today (the website was still vague at best). Here’s the reply I received:


Not only is the package going to miss the guaranteed delivery time, they don’t even seem to know when it will be delivered. How can that be? Surely, the correct answer should be first thing the next morning? Even without the special Express handling option, UPS has an option for guaranteed before 9:30am delivery (Next Day Early). And that works from a lot further away than South SF. It should have been simple to guarantee delivery by 9:30am if they cared. 

A smart organization, when they make a mistake like this, would upgrade the package to the fastest possible option. But not UPS. I called the number Amazon support sent me to get better tracking information & the only thing the person who answered could say was it would arrive by 8pm tomorrow. A whole 24 hours late. She showed absolutely no concern for the fact that I had paid extra for next day shipping for a reason. Like I needed it today; not tomorrow. 

Mistakes Happen

I understand mistakes happen (although I kind of assumed the package sorting would be an automated process, at least near an Amazon distribution facility). What really counts is how the organization handles it. UPS had two options:

  1. Promise delivery before 9:30am the next day (and keep that promise);
  2. Show zero concern for missing the delivery deadline, and not even provide an updated delivery guarantee. 

The first is good customer care, and should be the standard policy in cases where the mistake is clearly internal as it was in this case. The second treats customers as if they don’t matter. UPS went with option 2. 

Update 1 (August 11, 2016)

I had the chance to talk to a very nice lady from UPS’ Customer Relations department at HQ this morning, and go over some of the concerns I raised here. As I noted above, UPS feels the earlier 2-day package was delivered on time (and it did arrive on the day they said it would). My main concern there is that if Amazon continues to ship packages using UPS at the end of the week, the 2 day prime shipping becomes 4-5 day shipping. Even more so, since not only do they not deliver on the weekend (unless the special Saturday option was selected when the shipment was sent), they also don’t even move the package towards its destination. Essentially, it freezes on Friday night and doesn’t move again until Monday morning.

The second issue, with the next day package turns out to be partly Amazon’s fault. It seems they decided that the ground transit time from their Las Vegas distribution center to here was short enough that they could ship it using UPS ground rather than a guaranteed next day service. When I suggested that having made an error like this, it would be a smart move for UPS to expedite the package and minimize the delay; the response to that was that it wouldn’t make business sense (and that it would also be potentially complex to determine which packages needed to be expedited, though I don’t buy that at all since it was possible to send me the alert when the mistake was detected). Given that Amazon chose ground shipping for a premium rate next day delivery though, at least part of the blame lies with them. (They did refund the shipping costs, but I would have preferred the items on time so I wasn’t rushing to complete things before traveling). I suspect there is an API somewhere which the Amazon brain connects into and queries the expected delivery time using all options and then picks the cheapest.

Wearable Health

For a few years now I have “worn” a Fitbit One (carried in a pocket at least) most days. Relatively recently, my Pebble Time Steel watch added step tracking too. So, now I am typically wearing two devices that track my daily steps. Comparing them provides some interesting differences.

In a typical week, the Pebble tends to read slightly higher than the Fitbit, mostly because I wear it all night for the sleep tracking feature (sleep tracking is a whole separate article), so it captures anywhere up to 1000 extra steps that the Fitbit misses while I am not wearing it. 

Los Angeles Vacation 

Last week I was on vacation in LA with my family. The week consisted of a few different types of days that really highlight some of the differences. 

Here is the Pebble Health view of the week in Los Angeles:


That’s a pretty consistent number of daily steps. Monday an Friday we were at Disneyland & Disney California Adventure respectively, and we walked a lot. Tuesday through Thursday we were at the Great Wolf Lodge, and spent a lot of time in their indoor water park. While that involved some walking, it certainly didn’t feel anywhere close to the Disney park days. (The Sunday at the start & Saturday at the end were spent driving there & back, but we made several stops.)

The Fitbit captured a very different view of the week:


The most obvious difference is the much higher values for Monday and Friday, but also notice Tuesday through Thursday are lower on the Fitbit. 

Why the Differences?

The three days with low numbers while at the water park hotel are the easiest to explain: the Fitbit One is not waterproof, so it spent all the time we were in the pool areas locked in our hotel room. So, all the walking between pools and around the pools with the kids were missed. The Pebble is waterproof and I wore it the entire time we were in the pool. Not being waterproof is, in my opinion at least, a big limitation for a health tracking device. It is also pretty important for a watch!

The huge discrepancy on the Disney days might have had me puzzled if I hadn’t seen this before. The Fitbit is in my pocket, but the Pebble is on my wrist. While we were at Disney we had a stroller for our two year old and for some of the time each day I was pushing her around in it. Anchoring my wrist. I have seen this before with strollers as well as shopping carts. It seems to be a limitation of wrist worn step trackers.

Regular Weeks

On regular weeks, the differences are mostly irrelevant though. Here is the Pebble’s view of this week:


And the Fitbit saw this:


The first three days of this week have been regular commute days for me, walking between home/office and either the ferry terminal or bus stop. Tuesday I took the bus in to work (the bus terminal in SF is much closer to our office than the ferry terminal). 

Smarthome; Forgetful Inhabitant

Red Flashing LightA few weeks back I forgot to close the garage door. Not when we were leaving the house, but when we were already at home. A long time ago I upgraded lots of our house to have Insteon switches and sensors. The garage door has a switch/sensor combo on it so that I can both open & close the door from anywhere with Internet connectivity, and also see the current status on my phone. I also have it send me push notifications when the door opens or closes. When we leave the house, I am now trained to expect the closed message on my Pebble, and if I don’t get it, check.

We did that because I can’t count the number of times I was asked whether the door was closed when we were half a mile from the house, and we had to turn around and go back to check. But, when we’re at home, I don’t pay as much attention to the notifications. Hence the garage was left open one night (and my wife’s car, which was unlocked, was rifled through as were some boxes on a shelf near the open door – nothing was taken though, so I guess we don’t have anything valuable out there, or they were disturbed).

My Solution?

Since the garage door announces over the Insteon system when it opens and closes, my solution was simple: get a giant red flashing light (the one shown above) and an Insteon On/Off module to switch it on and off. Place this in the kitchen and “connect” the on/off switch to the garage door sensor via the Insteon network. Now, all the time the garage door is open, the red light flashes in the kitchen. As soon as the door closes, it goes off.

Smart home saves forgetful owner (again).

Pebble Thoughts

Black Pebble Time SteelIt is always a sad day when a company needs to trim staff, but at the same time it is sometimes very necessary to make sure expenses are inline with expected revenue. Today Pebble announced they were cutting 40 people from their workforce (25%). That’s a deep first cut, so hopefully for those left it will be the only one. The smart watch market is a strange one though. Even with the Apole watch (or perhaps partly because of it), the mass market adoption has been slow. 

What Pebble Does Well

Full disclosure here, I’ve had three Pebbles now (an original, from the first Kickstarter campaign), a Steel and now a Time Steel. For me the Time Steel is still my preferred smart watch. It isn’t perfect, and we’ll come back to that later, but it does everything I need. 

Battery life is top of the list for me. Even with plenty of notifications each day, I am getting over s week between charges. That is fantastic for somebody who carries two phones always (and sometimes more if I am testing things for work). Less devices to forget to charge every night is better. 

Close second would be the always on screen. I don’t want to have to make a conscious effort to look at the time. A quick glance gets me the time, and it is even clearer in sunlight than not. At night, I do still need to move my wrist to get the backlight, but a gentle twist works.

Notifications are the “killer app” for me, and the Pebble excels at them. If they appear on my iPhone’s lock screen, they appear on the watch. If the phone rings (very rare occurrence for my phone), I can see the caller ID on my watch & accept or decline the call (if I accept, I still need to get the phone out or put on the headset to actually talk). Since I am on AT&T, I also get the option of voice replies to text messages. That works most of the times I’ve tried it, but I don’t find myself using it much.

Waterproof. It is really waterproof. I can swim in it and not worry. 

What Could Be Better

The screen. Perhaps this is a case of the low power displays just not being as high density yet, but a really high density display (say 4x the number of pixels) would really shine. As would having the screen fill more of the face area; the large bezels are not great.

The software. Connectivity issues have been an issue for me on all my Pebbles and while the phone side is at least partly outside of their control, keeping the two devices connected and talking is job number one for a smartwatch. Additionally, not interfering with other Bluetooth devices is a must. Especially headsets and Bluetooth audio devices, both of which I have had issues with along the way. 

I would like to see some of the health information, like step counts, be included in watchfaces (maybe this can already be done and I just need to find, or write, a face that does it).

The Other Stuff

Health metrics is becoming a bigger space it seems, and Pebble was certainly late to the party. The activity & sleep tracking in the newer watches is a good start though. Personally, heart rate tracking doesn’t bother me, but that is not true for all. (If I had it, maybe I would feel differently too).

Timeline is another thing I don’t really use. The concept is good, but I am much more notification driven. Well timed calendar notifications work much better than me remembering to scan a list of events. 

Watch design is something I’ve seen Pebble be criticized for. The Time Steel looks OK to me & in fact is often mistaken for an Apple Watch at first, even by folks wearing an Apple Watch. The only real criticism of the design is the bezels. Smaller would be much appreciated! The screen really needs to get as close as possible to the outside edges of the face. I think the three new watches are a big step forward in design from the first two & I hope the design aspect will continue to improve. The look of the watch is very important. 

Carrying on from the look of the watch, the bands on the Time range (and the original Pebble) are all standard ones, with the included band on the Time watches coming with quick release pins. My Time Steel is on a third party nylon mesh band, and there are so many options out there at every price point and in all materials that it is hard to choose. If you go with quick release (sadly not available for my nylon band, though I am planning a mod to fix that), then you can change them in seconds for a different look.

Apps on the watch are not a big deal for me. I have two that I use (assigned to the shortcut buttons): the built in Health app for tracking  sleep & activity and Leaf, an app that connects to our home Nest devices. There are lots more available, but few that I really want on my wrist. Definitely not any web content reading or video apps!

Watch faces are something I’ve tried lots of (though still a tiny percentage of what is available in the store). I have my favourites, and switch between them occasionally. I also take a look in the store quite often to see what is new. 

The Future

I hope this downsizing is indeed a “right sizing” and Pebble can keep going strong. They have come so far, and I believe continue to supply something that the other contenders still cannot match (always on screen & a week of battery life), it would a shame to see them fail now.

The mass market appeal of wearables though is much harder to pin down. Health & fitness tracking will appeal to some, but I fear the things I value most in my Pebble will never be seen as more than nice to have (if that) by most people. Maybe the key to success for now is targeting the early adopter with a slightly higher end product. Early adopters will pay  more than the mass market & will upgrade more frequently. I am hoping Pebble isn’t planning to morph into another fitness tracking company with watch features.

Apple vs Law Enforcement

I’ve said a few things about this on Twitter already, but what amazes me here is that they are not asking Apple to turn over the key, or even to decrypt the data using a key they already have. Instead, they are trying to say they can force a private company to dedicate resources to writing a special version of their software, installing it on a device and then allowing the FBI remote access to the device.

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TriNet Experiences

It has been just over a year now that we have had TriNet as our HR service at work, and my opinion of them gets worse & worse with each interaction. There are definitely a few bright points, but still my overall advice for any small company thinking about using them would be simply, don’t. That is from an employee perspective of course, but hopefully when choosing something like this the employee experience is an important element too.

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Alameda Unified School District (Enrollment Process)

I don’t know if all school districts are this bad (I have a feeling it might be a common thing, if not universal), but my experience with the Alameda Unified School District doesn’t fill me with hope for future.

Online Registration

My first attempt to start the online registration was stymied by the insistence that I use Internet Explorer (impossible since I have only a Mac and an iPad). This is frankly ridiculous as a requirement too; it was bad enough a decade ago, but today there should be absolutely no need for something as basic a web based school enrollment system to require a specific browser or platform.

To further indicate the poor quality of the IT at AUSD, on the morning when enrollment for next year’s kindergarten grade was opened, their system crashed. All appointments issued before that were then canceled and we had to complete the process a second time. Alameda’s entire population is around 75,000 people. I don’t know how many of those would have been trying to enroll their pre-schooler in kindergarten for next year, but I can’t believe it was that many.

Enrollment Appointment

Once the online process was completed, the system generated an appointment for us (which happened to be today for me). The email that they sent out included the time and date, but did not include the address of AUSD’s administration offices.

When I mentioned that at the front desk while signing in, the lady there agreed that was something that should be fixed and asked me to point it out to the “enrollment counsellor.” At the end of the appointment, I mentioned it to her and she just said it has been suggested before but the address is all over their website and it is an IT issue. Or, in other words, “Not her problem.” Apparently no interest in doing a good job; just enough to get by.

Personal Information

As part of the online process we needed to upload copies of a utility bill and this year’s property tax bill. The online FAQ for what we need to bring to the appointment included these bills as well as my ID and the kid’s birth certificate & vaccination record.

I had assumed that she would simply check my ID to make sure I was who I said I was, but no. She wanted to make a copy of it. When I asked why, and how that copy would be secured, she said she didn’t know and if I wanted to find out I would have to contact the school. In the end, she got me a vague statement from the director that the copy would be locked up and not accessible to the public. Not much of a reassurance. I will be pursuing that further.

Printed Copy

Also on the list of documents to bring was a printed copy of the electronic enrollment. That seemed odd to me since they should have the electronic version. When I questioned that, I was told the printed copy was for the school and they didn’t have access to the electronic copy. There are problems I can see with this:

  1. If they need access to the information, why can they not be given access electronically? That seems like a flaw in the system. Far safer to have them access it electronically than keep a paper copy stored somewhere.
  2. If they do need a printed copy, why can the AUSD administration not print them one to put in this paper file. They were able to print copies of the bills I uploaded OK, and print other forms.

    Intradistrict Transfer

    Finally, since we were also interested in the possibility of a transfer to a school other than the one we would be normally assigned, I asked about that. That is also online, but unlike the rest of their site, the transfer request process is implemented using Google Forms and, apart from some of the questions not really handling the case of a transfer request for a pre-K student, it worked well. It is a shame the rest of the application process isn’t handled the same way.

Self Driving Cars

A while back it occurred to me that when my kids reach driving age, I might not have to teach them to drive because we might all be using self driving cars. There are very obvious benefits to that, not least of which is the improvement in safety. Too many people die in car accidents each year, and many of them are teens. Reducing those numbers would be a big step forward.

The flip side though is that while driving to & from work in heavy traffic is no fun at all, driving a roadster around a winding road, with the wind in your hair is an exhilarating experience that no self-driving car will ever be able to replace. In fact, I doubt we will even see self-driving roadsters. Most of the self driving vehicles I’ve seen so far have been more practical vehicle styles (with the possible exception of that Google one, which is just odd IMHO). My current car, while being a pretty long way from practical, puts a smile on my face every time I drive it on an open road (which is not often enough – it does around 2,000 miles a year max these days).

Extending that thought though, what happens to the premium super car companies? Does anybody believe there is a market for self driving Ferraris, Porsches or Lamborghinis? Will cars just become practical vehicles for getting from A to B?

While I suspect teaching either of kids to drive would be traumatic, part of me will be a little sad if my generation is the last one that learns to drive a car.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Episode VII of the Star Wars franchise is something few can have missed the hype & merchandising for, at least here in the US. That aside, the movie gets a solid thumbs up from me. My one line summary would be that this is episode IV for a new generation of fans. 

Spoilers after the jump though, so if you’re still trying to be surprised, don’t click through.

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