Problems with Translink/Clipper Card

Translink, recently renamed Clipper, is a contactless payment system for transit companies in the Bay Area.  It is theoretically usable on Bart, Muni, and for bridge tolls.  This seems at first to be a great idea.  Similar cards are in use in Hong Kong, Shanghai, Tokyo, and London, and work very well.

Unfortunately, San Francisco, sitting at the heart of the US tech industry, did not simply deploy one of these solutions.  Instead, they hired someone new, who gradually developed a system with the capabilities of those already in place elsewhere. This process was slow and involved many intermediate steps that would have been uneccessary had the city merely looked abroad before starting.

The first problem with Translink/Clipper is that the machines used to load value onto a card are only available in the downtown stations.  This means that a user with no value on their card at a non-downtown station has to pay cash fare, ride downtown, and then load their card.

The second problem is that the value adding machines are incredibly slow.  This slowness is due to their use of a dial-up modem to communicate with the Clipper computer network and perform credit/debit card checks.  A dial-up modem in the year 2010 for brand new machines installed in the heart of America’s tech industry seems not only stupid, but absurd.  Each transaction takes upwards of four minutes, and may fail if the dial-up connection isn’t established the first time.

To circumvent (not solve) these two problems, Clipper provides a service called Auto Load, where by the user can input a credit/debit card on their site and associate it with a Clipper card and money will be automatically added to the card when its value drops below $10.  This means the user does not need to go downtown or use those slow machines, though it does not remove the 72 hour transaction processing time, which is due to the fact that all trains do not dock every day, so their onboard terminals may not be updated for 72 hours and they may incorrectly reflect the card’s balance until then.  This is a problem only solvable if each terminal was networked, rather than only the downtown stations, which presents, I imagine, a significant cost barrier.  Thus the 72 hour transaction time is unavoidable.

However, the Clipper site is not without flaws.  First of all, it does not send out receipt emails for purchases.  Instead it sends out a generic email stating that “You attempted some action with the Clipper website that will take 72 hours to process.”  This avoids claiming a successful process when none has yet taken place, but also doesn’t tell the user what the action was.  Also, when the 72 hours have elapsed, the user is not notified if their transaction was successful or not, and are not given any receipt of charges in either case.  This means that, without re-checking the site, the user has no way of knowing what Clipper has done.

Should the transaction fail and the card not be loaded with money, the user will not be able to board a train.  And here in lies the real failure of the Clipper system.  There is no solution to this problem.  The staff in the station can not do anything about Clipper cards.  The online phone support staff can not do anything without a 72 hour delay.  The only solution is to either use the slow value add machines if at a downtown station, thus forgoing the entire Auto Load feature, or purchase a physical ticket, proceed to a location with internet, log on to the site, check value, try again to add value, and wait for 72 hours.  If this fails or succeeds no email or notification will be sent.

In Clipper San Francisco finally has some semblance of a modern contact-less payment system.  However, because the city hired a third party to build one from scratch rather than purchasing one that had already been deployed, the system is slow, opaque to the user and completely unresponsive to support calls.  Because it has never been tested in a different city the residents of San Francisco are forced to deal with the growing pains of a company that does not consider the transit rider its priority, and whose computer systems are woefully behind the times.  Dial-up, 72 hour transaction processing, and no email confirmation of purchases are reminders of 1995 rather than parts of a modern contact-less payment system.

Hopefully Clipper will improve, because the city has invested in it without considering better options, and residents are now forced to live with that choice.

Places of passion

In the East Bay on a weekend, brewing beer in a backyard, the sky is blue. Next door the man keeps bees, and has a huge grill for turkey roasting.

“We’ll miss this yard, when we move,” the brewer tells me, checking the mash’s temperature. “We’ll have something, but nothing like this.”

The grass is a little downtrodden, but the space, filled by tables and chairs, dirt, a small tree, and the abandoned brickwork of a previous tenant’s patio improvement project, is a luxury. The constant cycle of movement, children to city, families to suburbs, is born of afternoons like this, sitting around in a yard with friends, brewing beer. In earlier stages of this churn we would examine each other’s TV’s, computers, liquor cabinets, bookshelves. We still do, for those items remain the touchstones of an apartment, easy ways to understand whose house we are in, what kind of person resides where we now stand.

The back yard survey though is new. Our initial duck indoors for introductions is perfunctory, and after a moment of silence is followed by our real purpose.

“So, do you want to see what I’ve been working on?”

Of course we do, and are soon standing in the sun discussing barley mills and temperatures, worts and the value of an art wholly encompassed by single syllable words. Brewing’s language is proof of its early invention, we surmise, back when simpler terms were still available for claiming, before our language had become stratified and new tasks had to be called time-sharing and bookkeeping. In the backyard we see his private passion flare, that same widening of eyes and pride in discovery we have found before with friends in places like Level 4 and a club called Yellow.

The shift in focus from late nights clubs and basements to back yards and sunny afternoons isn’t new, nor as sudden as it seems in Berkeley. For as long as I can remember my uncle has spent most of his free hours in the garage, in his shop, making one thing after another, sometimes for his own house and sometimes for others. Phone calls holidays and visitors pull him out, into the living room or yard, but his passion, the place where he teaches himself things, sits well known behind the parked cars.

This habit then, of self-education, has not changed, but our targets have, from virtual bosses conquered with friends and dance moves learned beneath strobe lights to things made with tools of our own, in spaces of our own. There is no better, or worse, in these shifts, merely the variance of age, and opportunity. The peak, in all cases, is getting to demonstrate what we have learned to our friends.

If that can be done in a sunny back yard, so much the better.

How Apple gets it right

I’ve been a Mac user for a long time.  The first Mac I owned was a Motorola StarMax beige tower, which means that I went off to college before the original iMac.  That’s before the time best known as Steve Jobs 2.

My dad, who I had to convince to buy me that Mac, now works on a MacBook Pro.  My roommate, who laughed at my computer and then used it to play Swoop, has been using Macs for almost a decade.

Bits, which is my place for the two things Bobert says I do best, has featured a lot of Apple ranting recently, and I am frequently asked why I stick with Apple if I don’t like their policies, or why I got a new iPhone if I hate AT&T.

The answer is simple: because every time they have the opportunity to influence my decision-making Apple does a wonderful job.

This doesn’t mean Apple is flawless. It also doesn’t mean I’m immune to competition, to news sites and friends, and to other products.  What it means is that when the ball is in Apple’s court they hit a home run.

I write this up today because today I took Tara’s iPad in to the Apple store in downtown SF.  The screen had some streaks on it that continued to re-appear after cleaning.  They looked as though the glue that holds the display in to the bezel was leaking slightly.  At first I thought they came from the glue used on the black plastic portion that houses the 3G antenna, but after a month we noticed them on the other end as well, around the home button.  They look like dirt or finger print oil, except that they originate at the black edge of the glass and streak inwards, on two sides.  After two months, we knew it was a defect, and I scheduled a Genius Bar appointment online.

I worked for several years in quality control in China. I am very aware of the realities of manufacturing defects and error rates. While it is sad to get a new product that has a defect, and while production processes can usually be improved, unless there’s a problem at a scale that warrants a recall, what matters is not the flaw, but how it’s handled.

The way we treat each other is key. What I am looking for from Apple and other companies is not products that never have problems, but companies that treat their customers well when problems are discovered.

This morning I walked in to the Apple store at 10:04 and checked in on the second level.  I waited on a bench for around five minutes for my name to be called, and then showed my Genius rep the iPad, screen off so that the streaks were immediately visible.  She took it, looked at them, asked the next Genius over if he thought wipes and alcohol would work, took it in the back and tried to clean it.  She was gone for three minutes.  When she came back she promptly told me she would replace it as cleaning it hadn’t worked.  She pulled out a new iPad, had me sign the paperwork, swapped SIM cards, wiped the old iPad, and we were done.  The total time was 25 minutes, most of which was spent activating the new iPad, wiping the old one, and swapping SIM cards.

I left the store completely happy and texted Tara to tell her the good news.

There’s no joy in finding a problem with something. Making an appointment, taking it in, being potentially without it for a few days or weeks, those are all unpleasant things. They are also almost impossible to avoid.  The only things a company can control are their products pre-sale and their treatment of their customers at all times.

To fix my problem Apple’s staff treated me kindly, listened to me respectfully, didn’t question my honesty or intelligence, and repaired the original flaw in the product promptly.

That’s why they keep getting my money.

Gone running

In the spring of twenty ten I take up running in the mornings.

At work for much of the last two years on a novel that is taking its time, the chunks of story assembling like the preface to a giant Tetris game on my computer, in my notebook, waiting for the busts of inspiration that will fit them together without seams, I am restless.  Like Gibson, I “force myself to turn up every day, in case the writing also decides to.”  Often it does not, and my body, unaware of our shared dedication to a craft that requires hours spent seated, grows antsy.  So, in the mornings, through Golden Gate Park on the edge of the Pacific, I run.

Only one other time have I run regularly, independent of sport. The two years of my life in Tokyo that were without Ultimate drove me to action, to waking up early on my days off and putting five kilometers under my feet before beginning anything else. Strangely those were productive days too, for the writing, and I wonder if Murakami is indeed on to something.

Living here, in the San Francisco of chilly mornings and fog-filled skies, I do not hesitate to challenge my body. The weather will not, an entirely predictable space of days that veer between fifty five and sixty eight without producing sunshine or true rain. At thirty I am slower than twenty two, a change that others have discovered before. Where once I would hurdle the obstacles that separated car traffic from pedestrians in quick repetition for several blocks as I wound my way around Yono Honmachi I now pant up the hills of the park, their dirt surfaces tricky on the ankles. The cold ambushes my lungs, and some days I walk a block or two on each end of the steeper sections, an acceptance of age I gave no thought to in Saitama. There are other things I do less frequently as well now, the climbing of water towers on apartment buildings, or light posts, or tiers of balconies. Yet slacklining has strengthened my ankles, and my throws are better, proof that not all things have been neglected. So too does the habit of jumping random object return, in opportune moments like New York afternoons or Shanghai evenings. But in San Francisco, in the early morning after lunches are made and carpools departed I put on shoes purchased in Los Angeles for this very purpose and wear my body down. Half an hour is sufficient, a fifteen block loop through foliage that sometimes contains cats and sometimes homeless people. Back in my house, face flushed at the sudden return of warmth, I celebrate with pull ups, jumping jacks, sit ups and a shower. It is not Murakami’s religious devotion to the road but it does seem to help.

With coffee fresh and mind full I then can sit at this window, looking out at the world, and compose, my mind awake and body stilled.

The truth

Played some StarCraft 2 last night on Battle.net with Jorve.  Made this Penny Arcade quote sing:

It doesn’t entirely matter, though, when Gabe is across the room on this own machine, and we are – the two of us – beating on a single “Easy” A.I. Zerg opponent, just as we did when we still lived in the same apartment. They say you can’t go home again, but you can, actually, if your home is an imaginary world infested with xenomorphs.