Monday, October 31, 2011

Evanescence is Back With a New Album

It's no secret that Evanescence has been my favorite band since I was about 11 years old, 10 years later and I'm still in love with this Little Rock, Arkansas band. No wonder, too, with Amy's soulful lyrics that draw you in and her amazing vocal range, the music is angry and sad and happy and often all at the same time.

The band dropped their first studio album, Fallen, in 2003 which went on to sell 17 million records world wide, win 2 Grammy Awards, and capture the hearts of millions. A year later the live album Anywhere But Home was released and sold about a million records worldwide. The DVD portion featured a taping of the Paris performance as well as plenty of back-stage antics and crazyness from the band.

The band has had a tumultuous history with the lineup changing drastically and often over the years; David Hodges left in 2002, co-founder Ben Moody left in 2003 mid-tour, Will Boyd in 2006, and John Lecompt and Rocky Gray in 2007. There was at least one lawsuit and amid all the turmoil flying up around Lee, she still managed to drop a second studio album in 2006.

The Open Door which landed in stores on September 25, 2006 sold more than 6 million copies worldwide and was certified platinum in the US only a month after its release. Its obvious at a glance that this album, which featured a new Co-Writer for Amy (Terry Balsamo), didn't do as well as their debut Fallen, which featured lots of bass and lyrics laced with pain, sorrow and heartbreak over an abusive relationship with Ben Moody. Even I had my reservations in the beginning, but the album quickly grew on me as I grew with the band. The Lithium CD single for this album featured a bonus track, if you pre-ordered, from Amazon titled "The Last Song I'm Wasting on You" which is exactly that, having been married and moved on, she's done reliving the pain of her past relationship through her music.

Earlier this month, the band released their third studio album self-titled Evanescence which hit iTunes and Amazon on October 11th. The release date for this album is especially interesting because it happened to be my sister's birthday as well as National Comming Out Day. The newest album has spawned 2 singles so far: "What You Want" and another single, "My Heart is Broken," that was distributed to radio stations today. I'm fast falling in love with this rockier follow-up to their latest album The Open Door which featured softer harmonies and spookier vocal styles.

The original contract for the band was for 3 studio albums, and with Lee having been quoted "I'm not doing this forever" fans, including myself, are beginning to worry. Could this be the end of a band we've all come to love? Lee continues to evolve and grow as an artist with every album and I hope we don't see the growth end here with Evanescence. The album title itself kind of foreshadows just that though, given that the band's name means to "fade away" could this be Lee's way of telling us she's done with this chapter of her life?

Sunday, October 30, 2011

I'm Completely Awkward at Parties

I spent the night at a small Halloween party hosted by a friend of mine who I work with. Immediately upon arrival I had a rum punch in my left hand, a pudding shot in my right, a pastry stuffed between my fingers, and a kamikaze jello shot tucked between the fingers of my other hand. The night was fun, or at least about as much fun as I'm capable of having at these things.

I tend to stand around a lot, gravitating toward the larger groups of people so I look like I'm part of the group, but not actually participating in the conversation. I feel weird if I'm just standing completely alone, as I should, because who stands alone at a party? The worst bit is my social awkwardness, I earned some distinctive honors back in high school doing forensics (the National Forensics League), which is essentially a bunch of speech and debate competitions.

I obviously have no problem talking to people, but I have trouble conversating with them. Generally you'll talk and I'll listen intently (presumably) dropping in a "yeah" or "of course" here and there, especially if I'm not really interested in what you're talking about. It doesn't help that I love to people watch and get distracted fairly easily in large gatherings of my prey as there are so many personalities to take in and analyze later. If I don't know who you are, well I'm even worse. I'm not shy, but I don't know how to explain it, I don't know what you're interested in  and have no idea what to discuss.

There are always the "Bards," as I like to call them, at parties though who don't care who's interested in what, they have a story to tell, or a bunch (God help us), and they plan on telling it (them) to everyone they stumble upon. These are the people that are often also the ones that can't quite handle their liquor as well as they think and they end up running into you multiple times throughout the evening and forcing you to listen once more to yet another story, or even worse, the same story they told you 15 minutes ago, which happens to also be the story they told you 30 minutes ago and when you walked in the door.

That said, I know way too much about this guy's great aunt's cousin's niece's daughter who's kitten drank some spilled beer off a floor this one time and ended up in the mailbox where it attacked the mail lady the next day when she attempted to deliver the mail. While a summary is mildly amusing, the 20 minute version with the guy breathing his gross, alcohol lace breath in your face is less so, especially after hearing it for the 4th time.

If you're that guy or girl (they're often male) please understand that while we don't hate you, you'v probably only been invited as a courtesy and probably weren't really supposed to actually show up and have some stranger you've never met before drive you home in the crazy fog because you insist on drinking too much and telling too many stories. I feel bad for the poor guy who ended up taking this particular gentleman home.

At any rate, the night was fun, and since I have almost no life outside of work, writing, and writing (no, it's not a typo, I write so much I counted it twice) was also a much needed retreat where I could relax and have a few drinks with friends. Kim throws one hell of a party and makes some killer pudding shots. I'm mostly writing this because I wanted to put another article out today but didn't have time to actually sit down and do the work for the article I wanted to write given the party and all, plus I decided to sleep a little later than usual.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

How Do Authors Keep Ideas Organized?

One of the biggest issues for writers is keeping all the plots they construct organized, along with the flow of the story and the way the characters develop with the plot. For every author it's different, and I struggled while I was working on my debut novel, Majician's Journey, “TheProphecy,” and it shows, at least to me. I'm told though, that people are very critical by nature of their own work, but that's another matter entirely.

I'd tried to outline, like we'd been taught in my English classes in high school, and it always felt too refined, too finite. When I used an outline, I felt too restricted and often ended up diverting entirely off topic. The basic plot would rarely change but the details I'd imagined and jotted down almost always did. I think it was more in part my initial brainstorming/epiphany being flawed than with the way I was writing the story. Outlining in the standard sense just wasn't going to work for me.

Before I started working on my current book, I had a breakthrough. One day I got the urge to start working and I was curious as to how some of my favorite authors planned their work, so I started with the most obvious, Joanne Rowling, whom I respect and admire greatly. I ended up clicking on a Google search result that led me to a photo of a page from her notebook laying out her plan for Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix in which she'd set up a grid, kind of like an Excel sheet (this is probably what I liken it to most), that laid out the time of year, the times, the chapters and the individual chapter plots among other things.

When I saw it my brain whirred, and started building it's own version, making changes that began to fit perfectly with how I write and the way I approach the writing process. I'm use a very free-style way of writing, so-to-speak, preferring to let the words just “come-out,” rather than thinking too much about them. I I've found that with me, if I think too much about the story while I write, everything begins to feel forced. I eventually came up with what you see below ruled onto a legal pad:

Intro main chars minor back-story; the tattoo; build maerick's emotional connection for later
Maybe start with the tat spell? Kinda solemn, serious tone, an older mattes reflecting

With this, I can keep track of what time of year it is, the characters I'm working with and where they are, as well as approximately how many days need to be covered in that chapter, there is a place for me to write down the gist of the plot, I also know the chapter title (or a list of contenders at least, although sometimes they're blank (shh!)) and there is a spot for my notes or thoughts about the chapter. In the above example I used the first chapter of The Prophecy for example, because I can't exactly use a current chapter, now can I?

This method of outlining keeps me on-track, but allows me the freedom to create the story more fluidly. I've also used time lines a lot throughout, mostly to lay out the back-story for events that happened a long time ago but I still may need to reference because they're important to what is going on now. I need to keep everything aligned so that the dates and times are consistent throughout the series. I recommend time lines enthusiastically to anyone who has similar needs.

Keep in mind that, as I mentioned in the beginning, there is no de facto method for outlining or planning that works for everyone. Having a good understanding of how you think and work will make finding a method that works for you so much easier. The easiest way to figure out how you're working and thinking and what your “process” is could be by listing exactly why a standard MLA outline doesn't work for you, or what's wrong with it, along with other things you try. Experiment. After all writing is an art-form, and even though art isn't a science (though science can be art), at the heart of every artist needs to live a scientist because experimentation is so important in our work.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Taking On Cricket Communications

You've just enjoyed a great meal and a nice evening with the kids, you order desert and tuck in, the server drops the bill and you make your way up to the cashier and they say “$37.86 plus $5 convenience fee.” Absolutely absurd, no one would charge their customers to pay their bill, right? Wrong. This is where my battle with Cricket starts, on a sunny afternoon in the middle of Pittsburgh International Airport.

At one point in time I had a USB 3G wireless broadband modem from Cricket for when I traveled. Since I work mostly from home and charge clients extra for me to work on-location, I don't usually travel that much so I generally just pay the modem bill only if I know I'll need it in the next 30 days, and this works for me. On this particular occasion I forgot to pay the bill before I left, being in a hurry and needing to catch a flight and all, so I give Cricket a call.

They gladly pass me over to the billing department who kindly tell me I have to pay a $5 convenience fee in order to process my payment over the phone, to which I promptly say “No way in hell.” I'm already giving the company $50, so why should I pay them five dollars, merely so that I can hand over another fifty? The foreigner on the other line spits out the same line of crap time after time, a canned response showing up on his screen. Finally I've had enough, and ask for his supervisor.

When the supervisor gets on the line, I explain to him my situation and also explain how ludicrous it is that I should pay them in order to pay them. He spits out a slightly different line of crap that's shown by his computer screen again and again, and after another half hour of back-and-forth, me making valid points and him spitting out some flimsy excuse and apologizing again and again, I ask for his supervisor. Another half hour goes by before this guy finally gives in and takes my money without me paying a convenience fee. I'm happy (and I've effectively killed a ton of time waiting for a flight) and they can wash their hands of me, for now.

Normally I pay my bills online, that's how I pay all my bills, it's just easier, I'm always at my computer anyway and Cricket charges no fee to pay online because apparently that's, in their opinion, the least convenient method to pay and therefore requires no “convenience” fee. When I signed up with this company I was never told about these fees or many of their other policies which I'll get to in a second, because my run-in with this company is far from over.

I also have my cell phone with Cricket because they're fairly cheap and have a good "unlimited everything" plan which is what I need, given my call and text message volume, plus I spend a lot of time searching the Web when I'm away from my PC in my phone's browser, normally I pay my bill online, like I mentioned before, but on this particular day, I'd somehow procrastinated too long, and it's now the day the bill is due and I only have cash so I drive down the road to the Cricket store to pay my bill. They want me to give them a $3 convenience fee to pay my already $66 phone bill (I'm an Android user and they require special data plans at Cricket) so I have to give them money in order to give them more money. So I mention my phone incident and how they waived the fee and how I expect them to do the same. He basically laughs, and says (this is a direct quote) “If you don't fucking like it, go somewhere else and they can put up with your shit.”

I gave him the “Wow, really?” look and figured he'd just lost his job so with a self-knowing grin I gave him the money and left, pulling my phone out of my pocket on the way to my car. While I was still in the parking lot, I dialed the number to corporate, they took my complaint and all my details, the store location and the clerk's name. Not long after this I'm at my friend's house, enjoying a drink with him and his wife, and his wife Denae looks at me and says “What was that guys name who gave you so much crap the other day at the Cricket store?” I told her asked her why, she explained how she was there with her mom earlier while they were out shopping together and her mom had told her to be careful because she was Denae's ride home (I guess my friend had made sassy joke). The same guy who I had complained about had overheard this exchange and quipped “Don't worry baby, I can ride you home.” Denae laughed and explained she was married, he said, and I kid you not “Honey it's mind over matter, if you don't mind, it don't matter.” (lame pick-up line anyone?) I told her to call corporate as I had, and she did. To this day that employee still has his job, and still regularly harasses customers.

At the beginning of September, I had some further issues with the company and so did some close friends so I basically said I'd had enough and decided not to pay my bill, I planned on switching to T-Moble because they have a no-contract unlimited plan priced similarly to Cricket with better coverage and award-winning customer service (literally). T-Mobile's only draw-back is that their phones are $500-700 without a 2yr-agreement, so I was saving up to get a nice phone and be able to pay the first month. Unfortunately I have the least favorable odds in the world and things almost never work out as planned.

Shortly before I'd be able to make the switch I get an E-mail telling me I'm going to need to travel out to a client's data center on the other side of the state to do some maintenance, and I don't travel without a phone, it's just not a good idea at all, and besides my sister and I share my house so I'd need to keep in touch with her while I was away. So I break down and log-in to MyCricket and pay the bill, and my phone turns on. For about a week.

Cricket markets themselves heavily based on the fact that they're a no-contract provider, with no late fees or early termination fees. They don't maintain the same business practices that companies like Verizon Wireless use, allegedly that is, aside from providing absolutely terrible customer service. So when I got the text message “reminding” me that my bill of $66.35 was due on the 7th of October (I paid it on the 29th of September) I thought it was a mistake and dialed up Cricket. Turns out, it's not a mistake, they actually thought I was going to give them $134 for one month of service.

Before I go any further, I need to crunch some numbers for you, the same numbers I crunched for each and every person I spoke with at Cricket. On average there are 30 days in a month. My bill is $66.35 which works out to 2.21166... or $2.21 a day. My bill is due on the 7th, they shut my phone off on the 8th at midnight (so at 12am on the 9th my phone no longer had service) Which means I had one day of service that I didn't pay for, but I mean, that's their fault for not shutting me off right away, assuming it was a courtesy I'm willing to accept responsibility for it though. I paid my bill again on the 29th, because I needed to, God know not because I wanted to, and they wanted me to pay again on the 7th of October. In effect, I should technically owe them $2.21 for the 8th, but since “we can't just change your billing date” and the payment I made for essentially the next 30 days of service would only take me to the 29th of October, I told them I understood, and that I'd gladly pay for the 9 days needed to get me back on track with the 7th of November billing date. So in the end I was paying for a total of 10 additional days of service (one of which I conceded to pay for as my way of being reasonable and trying to meet them half-way) which at $2.21 per day is $22.21.

They refused to listen to any of it, well they all listened, and every single one of them said, and this is an almost word-for-word quote “I'm sorry sir, I do understand sir but the maximum rebate we can provide for time without service is $25.” In other words I was expected to pay $41.35 for 10 days of phone usage, and this is after I'd gone through 2 supervisors.

The third supervisor very, very rudely told me “You can't just pay your bill whenever you want, it's not a pay-as-you go service, it is [a] pre-pay service.” I responded asking him if I was wrong in my belief that Cricket had a no-contract service and he confirmed I was correct, and I also mentioned I never signed an agreement with Cricket and he confirmed I hadn't. So I told him that I wasn't Paying-as-I-Went, but merely Pre-Paying for 30 days of service beginning with the 29th. I finally asked this twat for his supervisor who pretty much said all the same stuff with the same accent and a slightly ruder tone. I'm not sure if it was this guy or if I went through one more supervisor before I finally, becoming so very frustrated, explained again the mathematics of the situation and that I was willing to pay for an additional 10 days of service to bring me to the next billing date. He told me that because they require a payment every month, if you miss a month, you still have to pay for it, plus the current month, to restore service. If you don't pay for 2 months, or 3 months, you'd have to pay for 3 or 4 months of service to restore your phone connection. So much for a no-contract plan, eh Cricket?

We ended up arguing for another half-hour, and finally, at long last he said “How about this sir, you're the customer and [other stuff], we want to work something out how about $20.” I promptly agreed, and made the payment, reminding him again calmly and politely that this is all I'd been asking for for over 3 and a half hours, and honestly, they'd have gotten more money if they'd just listened to me from the start.

Why did I just type over 2 thousand words about Cricket? Because they're an awful company and I want people to know about it. Further, Cricket isn't a no-contract wireless carrier after all, because their terms of use are considered by them a “legally binding contract between you and Cricket” which essentially does say that you have to make a payment every single month or you'll pay for the months you didn't have service too, even if their FAQ leads you to believe otherwise. Just pray the sales person who sells you your phone lets you in on this and hands you their terms and conditions pamphlet because I never got one, and lots of other people I know didn't get one, so either this is new, or it's the terrible service at the neighborhood Cricket store. Either way, this company is ridiculous.

But it's not the first and only company to indulge in unsavory business practices, plenty of companies charge you a fee for you to pay them, for instance, and the only way they'll stop is if we force them to, by refusing to pay their fees, or use their service. Big businesses don't care about customers anymore, just like they don't care about employees, we're all replaceable. As a small business owner/freelance developer, I can say that I will never treat customers like this, I've fired my customers before, and gave them a full refund, but Cricket wasn't even willing to give me a refund and send me on my way. I am leaving Cricket, and honestly, I don't care about a contract at this point, I'll need a phone for the next two years pretty much no matter what, so I might as well, right?

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Things to Consider When Tipping Your Waiter

Everyone goes out to eat at some point in their lives, often more then once or twice a week. When we go out, we do so because we don't want to cook, or clean, or maybe we're celebrating a special achievement or event of our kid(s) like an "A" in math or a celebratory dinner after a concert.

Rarely, though, do we think of the people who make this nice, relaxing evening with the kids or that new special person in our lives possible. Most notably are the service staff at your favorite restaurant. They run around literally all night, waiting on us hand and foot, making sure our drinks are refilled before they're empty. Your server is the person who acts as the intermediary, between the customer and the cook, making sure you get exactly what you want and how you want it.

The server often gets crap, so to speak, from both sides. They put up with our rudeness, our needy demands, they go out of their way to make the evening right, and they get the comments from the kitchen when the cooks screw up, your server is a micro-managment-machine, and they make your dining experience enjoyable. Even if the food is less than par, a good server can make the evening favorable anyway. Servers are, in fact, the most important piece of a dine-in restaurant's equation and what do they make on average? $2.83/hr. 

Having talked to many servers and non-servers alike, it seems that most people generally assume that a server makes minimum wage like every other employee in a restaurant. But state and federal labor laws allow employers to pay their service staff a special minimum wage which is far less than the standard. What makes the situation worse is that most people don't understand exactly how to tip, or what to consider as a basis for the tip.

As a general rule, for me at least, my server never gets less than $5 from me, even if I simply sat down and had a coffee, but I also tend to be out at 2am and often sit for an hour or two. Generally, you should tip your server $1 for every $5 you spend, which works out to 20%, this simple formula can save you time at the register with your phone's ridiculous tip calculator that defaults (usually) to 10-15%. 

Remember when I mentioned I sit for a few hours drinking coffee? Time should be taken into your tip as well, remember that on average, a table "turns" every 30-45 minutes in most family restaurants (like Denny's) and ever hour to hour and 15 minutes in higher-end establishments (think Olive Garden or Long Horn Steak House). So if you and your family sit for 3 hours catching up, you should probably at least tip 1.5 times the 20% standard (ex: $20 check works out to a $4 tip, divide the tip by 2, you get $2 add it to the original tip for a new tip of $6) however if you sit much longer consider doubling your tip all-together.

"Why should I double my tip or even tip more?" You might be asking, and the answer is fairly simple, if a server has 4 tables in their "section" that she is responsible for, and you take up one of them for 4 hours, they're effectively losing out on 3-4 tables worth of tips, which you should help to make up for, even if you've stopped needing refills an hour and a half ago.

If you've had a bad experience at a restaurant you probably shouldn't take it out immediately on your server, they may have had a death in the family, or perhaps another table was abusing them beyond what is expected, and trust me when I say there are some people who will run a server from minute one. If you thought your service was poor, tip no less than 10% and talk to the manager, they will usually adjust your bill for you or send you home with a free desert or gift card. If the manager or head waiter/waitress comps your bill, you should perhaps consider leaving at least a 15% tip, or even 20% because, after all, you did eat for free and it may not have been the server's fault.