Filed Under (Business, Stuff) by Sean on March-20-2009

People who know me know that I often rag on Starbucks, mainly about their coffee. They over-roast the beans. They scald the milk horrendously in lattes, macchiatos and cappuccinos. You can have any coffee you like at a store, so long as it’s Pike Place. The one thing they do get right, however, is customer service.

Another thing I’m known for is collecting used coffee cups on my desk (or any surface, for that matter). When I went into the office earlier, I decided to pick up one of my collection of Starbucks tumblers and clean it out to take with me. Upon close inspection, I noticed that one particular model (below) was damaged. This particular model has a design flaw; there is no release valve or any way for expanded air to escape. This plagued me all the time with this model since every time I had hot coffee in it with the lever moved to the closed position, I would get coffee splashed all over me everytime I opened the lever to take a sip. In any case, I had presumably left the lid closed, since I noticed that sufficient pressure had built up inside it to actually break the internal arm which connected the rubber gasket seal with the switch on top. Thus it was impossible to close.

Old Starbucks Tumbler

I walked into my neighborhood starbucks and showed them what happened. It’s important to note this was a tumbler I probably paid about $12 for 2-3 years ago. The employee behind the register did not hesitate and told me to grab any replacement tumbler off the shelf to replace it at no cost. “Really?” “Any tumbler. I like the steel ones with the built in French press, ” he responded. So I picked up my brand new $23 plus tax solo stainless steel press pot (picture below) and went on my merry way. He even filled it up with coffee at no charge.

Fancy new Solo Press Pot

My friends know that I go to Catalina Coffee in Houston if I want a good cup of coffee (or Caffe Medici in Austin, where I frequented while attending South by Southwest). But there is a lot to be said about this level of standing behind a product, no questions asked. This wasn’t the first time, either. Years ago, I purchased my parents a Starbucks Barista Aroma automatic coffee maker for Christmas. After 2+ years of nonstop use, it just stopped working one day. My father took it into his nearest Starbucks, and even though it was well out of warranty, received the same treatment as me. This was a $200 coffee maker to boot. It is good to know that even a multi-billion dollar corporation empowers its employees to give you mom-and-pop shop level service every now and again.

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Filed Under (Business, Houston, Rants) by Sean on October-10-2008

(UPDATE) I wanted to take a moment to update this post, since it has been almost three weeks since it was originally authored. We’ve had a virtual group hug through this post, evidenced in the comments below. Let me restate the obvious: Max’s coffee and coffee drinks are the best in Houston,  probably in the top 10% of coffee shops on the planet. I do have to admit I haven’t been back to Catalina yet, but I will be paying Max a visit very soon (mostly to get some beans now that I’ve finally settled into my new place, with espresso machine). Lest there be any doubt, I will frequent Catalina for its off-the-charts lattes and coffee, albeit less frequently than before. The reason for that actually has to do more with my commute and proximity since moving than the fact that Max and I had a tiff or that his electrical outlets are still covered up (and yes, they are still covered up). If I were Max, I wouldn’t have covered the outlets, but it’s his shop and he can do whatever he damn well pleases. And that’s fine by me. Just don’t fuck with the coffee.

As many of my followers know, Catalina Coffee is one of my favorite coffee shops and hang outs. In my opinion, it epitomizes cafe culture (albeit a unique American variant) and has, bar none, the best coffee in Houston, period. In many cases, like many regulars there, I’ll make it by more than once in a day. I’m very sad to say, however, I had an extremely unpleasant experience today.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Ike, it has been extremely difficult to come upon a coffee shop (or anywhere, for that matter) with a) power, b) coffee, and c) wireless Internet access. Catalina was one of the only places in Houston to offer all three, and they did so the day after Ike made it’s appearance in our fair city. None of the local Starbucks were open, and other local coffee shops (Coffee Groundz) that were either had bad coffee, no Internet, or both.

When word got out, Catalina quickly became overwhelmed with new business from Houstonians needing their caffeine fix. It also served as a command center and refuge for many citizens who had no power or Internet at home, who wanted to check the latest status updates from Centerpoint Energy, check on loved ones, and generally go about their business online. Consequently, long lines for coffee and tables overcrowded with laptops became the norm.

Though I’ve made a few appearances at Catalina after the storm for coffee, today I arrived with my fully discharged laptop needing to catch up on a couple of mundane tasks, including paying a few bills and moving utility services to my new residence (incidentally, my old place has power but no Internet; my new place has no power). I was surprised to see all the power outlets had metal plates over them. Suspecting this was a result of Ike-related water damage or some other such safety issue, I inquired when the outlets would be available again. Max (the proprietor) responded, “Never.” He stated the reason was that the environment was getting mob-like and out of control over the last few days as “people were fighting over power outlets” and things of that sort. While I certainly understand the need to mitigate unruly behavior, there are many other ways to go about it. I do have to tip my hat to Max for his ingenuity in solving the supposed “problem;” it was extremely effective. The problem is it unnecessarily penalizes legitimate, regular customers who spend lots of money on coffee and conduct their affairs online. To add insult to injury, he decides to use this “solution” during a time of crisis and when people need to use it the most. It smacks of reactionary behavior and poor business citizenry in the least.  After debating the issue with Max for a few minutes, I seem to have unearthed some far deeper rooted issues that apparently vex Max. I’ll reiterate some of our discourse and let you be the judge.

After getting the “never” response from Max to my question about when we would expect to get the power outlets back (assuming this was a short term fix, even if it was extremely poor timing given the current situation post-Ike), I politely stated that I needed to get some things done on occasion, along with a subtle allusion to my regularity and largesse (not only do I spend lots of money on coffee and am always careful to not take up space unless I’m buying things along the way, but I tip extremely healthy and have referred lots of new people to the establishment).  He said, “bring another battery.” I told him that wasn’t an acceptable solution (a) I don’t have another battery, and b) where am I supposed to have charged these batteries especially if I don’t have power?). His shocked response to that was, “Unacceptable? Are you fucking kidding me? Unacceptable. I can’t believe that.” I told him that especially after Ike in a time of crisis I thought he was betraying his customers’ trust. He stated that he was “tired of people abusing my space. Cafe culture is not sitting down at a coffee shop for three hours.” Really? Are you kidding me? I suppose you have never sat down in a Parisian cafe then. Incredulous and stunned to that response, I told him that I thought the defition of cafe culture was different for everyone and that one should err on the side of what your customers wanted it to be. His response? “Customers? I don’t care what customers want. What matters is what I want. I opened my own shop because of that.” I asked him if he had thought of better ways to address the problem. His very cavalier response was that he had solved the problem and wasn’t really interested in discussing the subject any further. I told him that he was curing cancer by killing cancer patients and there certainly were better ways of addressing the problem.

I have tremendous respect for Max, his craft and his business acumen. He runs a very tight ship that produces a superior product and spares no expense nor takes any short cuts to achieve it. That is a very rare quality that I think more businesses should adopt. I also absolutely appreciate running your own business on your terms and not doing things the way everyone else does. I respect his ingenuity in his approach to the problem, but it is akin to solving email spam by simply only accepting 1 out of 1000 emails to your inbox, regardless of content. If his problem is slim margins from not turning over enough tables, he should address the business model accordingly and raise prices, or charge for wifi, or establish minimums. Ripping out the rug from under customers and biting the hands that feed him is not the proper solution. I am troubled by Catalina’s “solution” on two fronts: 1., the “solution” itself, and 2., the arrogant, cavalier attitude exhibited about the “problem.” I wasn’t aware that working quietly on my laptop for a few hours and spending $20 while I’m there in one sitting was “abusing his space.” In 20 years of starting and running small businesses, I do understand the importance of “firing” bad customers and mitigating abuse. By the same token, however, I have always found it extremely beneficial to the bottom line to err on giving customers the benefit of the doubt and applying the golden rule in abundance. That this decision comes in the highest time of need, makes it especially pernicious.

What do you think?



Filed Under (Business, Entrepreneurship, Houston, Politics, Technology) by Sean on May-29-2008

The following is a letter one of my friends and colleagues wrote to Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison concerning the upcoming Senate vote on the Lieberman-Warner Climate Security Act. I have left it unedited, with the exception of replacing his underlines with italics for readability. I think he makes some excellent points here and I concur with his assessment, particularly the point about Houston (and Texas) constantly taking the easy road of eschewing change, resulting in the best minds, ideas and innovations going to the west coast. I am tired of the intellectually lazy, business-as-usual conservative politics here. Because of insipid, brainless dogma, we repeatedly squander every opportunity to do truly great, innovative things. Anyway, enough of my opinion. Enjoy!

To: Senators Kay Bailey Hutchison & John Cornyn
RE: Lieberman-Warner Climate Security Act

The Senate is scheduled to debate and vote on the Lieberman-Warner Climate Security Act the first week of June.

As a citizen of Texas, a technology entrepreneur, a co-founder of one of Houston’s first Internet service providers, a veteran of the armed forces, and a current real estate professional, I urge you to seize this historic opportunity and pass this bill.

Here are five compelling reasons to act now:

  1. The political opportunity is ripe. 78% of Americans want Congress to act on global warming. We need to take advantage of the tremendous momentum that exists today.
    • Building a domestic renewable energy supply that weans us from a mostly foreign, Middle-Eastern oil supply should be a national security imperative.
    • Carbon emission caps also address a very important LOCAL concern in Houston – our notorious air toxicity and ozone (exacerbated by CO2 and other heat-rapping gases).
  2. This isn’t an issue with whether or not you agree with global warming – this is an economic issue now of producing domestic, cleaner energy and spurring technology investment in Texas beyond oil and gas – gas prices are out of control and we need more choices for energy. However, every year we wait equals extra effort. If we delay this bill by just two years, we will have to make twice the annual cuts in carbon emissions to hit the same cumulative reductions by 2020.
  3. Someone is going to win the global race to create competitive cleaner energy. Houston and Texas can benefit, with effective leadership, from this growing consensus. Renewable energy promises to become one of the world’s most profitable industries – Japan and Germany already are ahead of us. But advances in renewable energy technologies will not be fully realized without a national cap on global warming pollution – almost every clean-energy entrepreneur agrees with this statement that has been interviewed. Refuse to act and most of the entrepreneurship will go to Silicon Valley just like in 1995 when I was starting Houston’s first large Internet services provider. Please don’t become complicit in a technology brain-drain from Texas 10 years out.
  4. The science is unforgiving. As the Earth warms, we approach a “tipping point,” after which large destructive climate changes become inevitable. This is a scientific consensus (like tobacco smoke causes lung cancer) – I am frankly not interested in whether or not policy analysts or members of Congress agree with this consensus or not, especially when it comes to my planet and health.
  5. What legacy will the 110th Congress and you leave for Texas? When future generations look back at this moment, they will either praise you and the Senate for starting us down the path to solving the global warming crisis, or blame you and the Senate for squandering this opportunity. If you fail to vote, you stand to put us right back to the 1980’s in Texas while the rest of the nation moves ahead. You have an opportunity to make us a leader in the energy future of America, or to allow us to decline when oil production drops off. It will happen – history is famous for repetition.
  6. Finally, have you read Earth: The Sequel: The Race to Reinvent Energy and Stop Global Warming by Fred Krupp? What amazes me as a business leader and entrepreneur is his complete embrace of markets – with smart and effective federal leadership – to solve the problem, based on case studies and diligent research. What are you doing to secure Texas in this new emerging energy markets? Please vote FOR the Lieberman-Warner Climate Security Act when it comes to a vote in June.

Erik Fowler
Houston, TX



Filed Under (Funny, Houston) by Sean on February-21-2008

I just received these pictures from my good friend Jill, who received them from a third party. They were taken here in Houston two days ago on Highway 59 northbound around W. Airport Blvd. Out here, the lanes are very wide. A couple of miles up the road, however, our friend is in for a very nasty surprise as the lanes get narrower (or at least there are a lot more cars). Perhaps he is using one of these devices which has made him forgetful. I hope he makes it to the Darwin Awards Finals! Click on the image to get a higher resolution picture. Enjoy!

Yes!

Brilliant!



Filed Under (Life) by Sean on February-21-2008

Well we had some definitively crappy weather here in Houston (METAR below) so no eclipse. Nada. Perhaps getting in a plane and flying around above the clouds would have yielded a better view. BUT, that would require I pull myself away from blogging, twittering or such other worldly endeavors. Maybe I’ll have all the CSS refactored by the next one in 2010. Hell maybe I’ll be twittering from the moon in 2010. :)

METAR as promised (you know you love it):

KHOU 210618Z 11003KT 8SM FEW003 OVC009 19/18 A2991 RMK AO2 CIG 006V012



Filed Under (Aviation, Life) by Sean on February-10-2008

(UPDATE 3) – This is basically a completion of the update 2 where I finish the pictures’ detailed descriptions and decode some of the other aviation gobbledygook such as the weather prognosis, etc. Below you’ll find all the images have been re-uploaded in much higher resolution, and I’ve inserted more detailed comments on each image. I even start to dive into some detail about the latest advances in avionics and related posts deciphering what each thing is on the various screens.

Wow what gorgeous weather we’re having down here in Houston these days. My sincere condolences go out to those who have suffered loss or hardship from the severe weather in neighboring states.

I’m going flying this morning with my long-time friend Erik to take advantage of the weather. I’ll post an update when I return to terra firma; for now here is the weather synopsis:

METAR KSGR 081253Z 13005KT 10SM CLR 08/02 A2999 RMK AO2 SLP166 T00780017
KHOU 19nm E 081253Z 14004KT 10SM SCT250 08/02 A3000 RMK AO2 SLP163 T00780017

So the above is called a METAR which is basically an acronym for “message d’observation météorologique régulière pour l’aviation” which is roughly translated into routine aviation weather observations. Here we see at KSGR (Sugarland airport) on the 8th at 1253 Zulu time (GMT, or 653 am local time) there are winds blowing from 130 (SE) at 5 knots, skies are clear, the temperature is 8 degrees Celsius and the dew points is 2 degrees Celsius, the barometric pressure is 29.99 inches Hg, the facility has an automated precipitation sensor, sea level pressure is 1016.6 millibars and the temperature in Celsius is 7.8 degrees and dew point is 1.7 degrees. The nearby METAR for Hobby Airport is an exercise left for the reader.

TAF KSGR 081128Z 081212 VRB04KT P6SM SKC FM1500 15008KT P6SM SKC FM1800 19013KT P6SM FEW250 FM2100 22013KT P6SM SCT250 FM0100 25007KT P6SM SCT250 FM0600 34007KT P6SM SKC
KHOU
19nm E 081128Z 081212 VRB04KT P6SM SKC FM1500 15008KT P6SM SKC FM1800 19013KT P6SM FEW250 FM2100 22013KT P6SM SCT250 FM0000 23008KT P6SM SCT250 FM0600 35007KT P6SM SKC

Above we have what is called the TAF or Terminal Aerodrome Forecast. This TAF basically says that it was issued for KSGR at 1128 Zulu on Feb 8 and is valid from 1200 Zulu on the 8th until 1200 Zulu the following day. Starting at 1200 Zulu the winds are forecast to be variable at 4 knots and visibility is 6 statute miles plus. Starting at 1500 Zulu, the winds are forecast to be blowing from 150 at 8 knots with 6 miles plus visibility and clear skies. From 1800 Zulu, winds are from 190 at 13 knots, 6 miles visibility and it will be partly cloudy with the cloud layer at 25,000 feet. The rest if the TAF is an exercise left for the reader.

(UPDATE)

So I’ve returned to earth after our jaunt around southeast Texas looking for a place to get an omelette. We were unsuccessful in that endeavor and ended up eating at Denny’s after we returned. Some good pictures from the voyage are below. Click on each picture to zoom in and read more information about it.

Just getting going from KSGR

Here we’ve taken off and climb to about 2,500 MSL (Mean Sea Level as opposed to AGL – Above Ground Level).

A view en route

Traffic!

Here we’ve spotted a plane flying at approximately our altitude; we’ve already seen it on the display and follow that up with finding it outside. No, that’s not a giant red circle in the sky; I’ve highlighted it to make plane spotting a simple task for the reader. Note that spotting planes in the air is not that easy.

Getting a little closer . . .

It’s a Bird . . . no it’s a Mooney!

Here we can make out that it’s a Mooney, most like a Bravo. Basically the general rules for planes flying VFR (Visual Flight Rules) are that planes flying at 3,000 AGL or above with courses (ground track) flown between 0 and 179 are to fly even thousands plus 500 feet; planes flying between 180 and 359 are to fly odd thousands plus 500 feet. For example, if our heading is 310, then proper altitudes for us would be 3,500, 5,500, 7,500, 9,500 and so on. Aircraft under IFR (Instrument Flight Rules) fly on the thousands, i.e., 3,000, 5,000, 7,000, etc. This principle is known as the hemispherical rule. Note there are additional rules that govern altitudes that are beyond the scope of this post.

This isn’t your father’s Cessna!

You can see here that avionics have certainly changed over the years. This cockpit is more sophisticated than a 10 year old 747 jetliner. In the vernacular of aviation, this is known as a “glass cockpit” as opposed to a “steam gauge” or “six pack” cockpit.

A closer look at the PFD

Here I’ve taken an up-close picture of the primary flight display. It presents all the information you need in one place. The ticker tape to the left is indicated air speed in knots (118) and our true air speed (124). The right tape is our altitude (2,720 ft MSL), our dialed-in altitude bug (2,500 which can be used to salve the auto pilot) as well as ascent or descent in feet per minute (vertical speed) and the dialed-in barometric pressure (used to determine altitude – here 30.02 inches Hg). The center shows us our current attitude (vs. the horizon). Below all that is a compass rose with a wealth of information superimposed. This is called the Horizon Situation Indicator (HSI). On our display you can see our current heading is 308 (north is 360 and south is 180, as expected). The heading bug, or heading we dial in for reference (that can be used to slave the auto pilot) is 313. Our course that we’ve laid into the GPS (KSGR -D-> 60R) for our flight is 328. Our actual track over the ground (which differs from heading due to wind) is approximately 325. Other miscellaneous information displayed includes the outside temperature (56 °F) and nearest airports (vitally important information in case one’s engine were to stop running).

A closer look at the PFD

Here is the Multi Function Display. It also provides an amazing amount of information. A major advantage of this technology is situational awareness. A drawback is how much a pilot may keep his eyes inside the cockpit watching the pretty pictures and not looking outside. Here we can see the plane superimposed on a map. The orientation of the map is track up (the track is our track over the ground). You can see the plane itself is skewed to the track due to a large crosswind (displayed on the MFD as 38 knots!). The large megenta line is our dialed in course. The dashed arrow is the track vector showing our future track and position in 1 minute (selectable). The two diamonds are part of the Traffic Awareness System (TAWS) and are actually two departing aircraft from Hobby Airport (KHOU). It displays their vector track with solid white lines and their current altitude relative to ours (2,000 and 1,500 feet above us in this case). Other information displayed includes terrain (the teepee looking artifacts are towers), highways (Highway 290 and Highway 6 here), and the terminal area surrounding Houston depicted in Cyan (here known as class B airspace). There are also Victor Airways displayed (V194, V15, V571, and V574).

60R, our destination airport

Here we’re overflying the airport to identify the way the winds are blowing. We have a good idea already since we’ve got broadcast automated weather information for the area (plus information on current wind vector and speed at our altitude is displayed in the cockpit but that can be drastically different from the winds on the ground resulting in dangerous shear) , but this is a non-controlled airport (i.e., it doesn’t have a control tower) and you don’t want to be caught flying downwind on a short runway (you always land into a head wind if possible). If you’ve always wanted to know what the meaning behind runway numbers is, they basically equal the compass heading of the runway divided by 10. So here we see runway 35, which basically means it has a compass heading of 350, which is 10 degrees west of due north. The opposite end of the runway is consequently 17. In this case the winds are blowing almost directly down the runway, or from 170. Also note that meteorologists always describe wind direction by the direction from which the wind is blowing; i.e., northerly winds are winds from the north. It also makes it easy to pick which ruway you’re using. If the wind is 170, then you know you should be landing on runway 17.

Turning from base to final for RW 17

Now that we’ve identified the runway direction, we enter what is called the traffic pattern. While it’s described for each airport, the default traffic pattern is what is called a left hand pattern. Below is an excellent image of what construes the traffic pattern from the wikipedia article on the subject. The original image is available here.

Left field traffic pattern

Short final

Now here we’re in the “short final” phase of flight.

Getting out of the plane

A 1940 Taylorcraft BC-65

Wind!

Arrival right behind us

This guy was practicing touch and go landings. He probably did at least 20 while we were present. This airport is a little tricky since there are no taxiways so you have to “back taxi” down the runway. Aircraft separation is maintained on the Unicom frequency where each aircraft announces their position, phase of flight, intentions and the target airport (many nearby airports share the same frequency, so an example in our case would be, “Navasota, Skyhawk 1615 alpha turning base for runway one seven, Navasota.”)

2005_0101625e130140.JPG

Take off roll

Well we never could find a place to eat within walking distance so we resume with a take off roll after hanging out at the airport for a short bit.

Random picture of cars from above

Cumulus clouds forming

Back at KSGR

Clear of the active

Planes on the ramp



Filed Under (Gastronomy, Life) by Sean on January-23-2008

Today I had the pleasure of getting together with my oldest brother (who is a grandfather and has officially entered his fifties – a sobering thought if it weren’t for the fact that he plays in two bands three nights a week and parades around like he’s in his thirties and still looks it; I have more gray and more of a receded hairline than him) for lunch at P.F. Chang’s to use up a couple of gift certificates from the winter solstice (that holiday many people call kriss-mess or something . . .) holidays. So we went full court press and hodgered some serious groceries, as we like to say in my family.

So we had some hot tea in a lead-encased pot that weighed about 62 lbs and of course the waiter whipped up their dipping sauce which is essentially a mixture of chile oil, rice vinegar, chinese mustard, and soy sauce. Of course to kick that up (as is it could be thinned out with a little stock and eaten as a soup) we added sambal oelek (I love wikipedia) and more chile oil. Then our server told us he would bring out some more spice to kick it up. Scot (my brother) and I dig in with a couple of teaspoons and slurped up the mystery sauce (it was hard to tell with the lighting and the small ramekins) and noted it was simply Sriracha.

Anyway, there was plenty of banter whilst we scarfed on the first two choices for appetizer: salt and pepper calamari and Chang’s chicken wraps. Most of our discussion was BS and catch up since we hadn’t seen each other since the holidays. Some of it was light ranting about dumb-ass drivers in Houston (quick question: why is the speed of a vehicle over rough pavement/rail road tracks, etc., inversely proportional to the size of the vehicle? Why do Ford Ex-screw-me-sions and Cataract Escapades slow to a stop before driving over pebbles? Why? There will be a blog entry about that sometime soon . . . :) ) including people driving slow while on the phone in the fast lane and other things that perplex me no end.

Anywho . . . . back to the vittles. We had decided upon a couple of dishes we hadn’t had before: Sichuan (i.e., Szech(w/u)an) Beef and Chengdu spiced lamb. The beef was good, but the Chengdu was kick ass. I will definitely be getting that again and urge everyone to try it. It is described on the menu as “Richly spiced marinated lamb, wok-caramelized then tossed with cumin, mint, tomatoes and yellow onions.” It is seriously yummy is what it is. According to the restaurant’s website, we each ingested about 1,760 kcal. With that I should be running, not driving, home . . .

Anyway, I’ve got to get back to wrapping up here at the office (while I’m listening to one of my favorite Internet radio stations: GrooveSalad at SomaFM) so I can get home and get back to cooking for this Friday!