Monday, September 27, 2010

Avoid: Ace Rent-a-Car

As lightly described in this post, I recently rented from Ace Rent A Car in Los Angeles over Labor Day weekend.  It wasn’t what I would call a great experience.

When I looked for rental cars on Kayak, Ace came up as cheapest, by a factor of almost 1/2.  Their cheapest rental was a smart car at about $12 a day, with tax and fees, about $50 for the Friday–Monday rental.  I typically rent from Alamo, but since I needed the car just for in-city driving — you can’t get anywhere in Los Angeles without a vehicle, and cabs can be way too costly as I found on my last trip, two years ago — so I gave them a try.

Ace is located off-airport, at the nearby Sheraton.  These days, you have to catch a shuttle from most any airport to the car lots, so that was no big deal.

At the rental desk, they had terminals for up to three agents working.  One customer was being served, and one return was being processed.  A third agent came up and helped the one person in line in front of me.  When the return was done, that agent left for the back room.  (On break?  I don’t know.)  The first rental was having issues of some sort.  When the second rental was done, that agent also left.  Once they finally helped me, it had been 45 minutes from when I arrived at the rental desk (an hour from when I caught the shuttle) until they got me the car, with only one person in line in front of me.  Fortunately I had no particular place I needed to be until that evening, so the delay was mostly annoyance, but it would have been bigger had this been a trip where I had a meeting to get to or where I was flying into Los Angeles and driving to Palm Springs.

(In comparison, at Alamo I would have walked to a kiosk — which probably wouldn’t have had anyone in line at it, since most people don’t seem to know to use them — and since I’m a Quicksilver member, I would have spent about 3 minutes at the kiosk, walked out to the parking lot, grabbed my car, and been gone in total time of less than 10 minutes, max.)

I had to fill out more than one form, including manually transcribing my insurance number twice.  They required a $250 deposit to do the rental, so I had to put it on my debit card rather than the credit card I wanted to use.  (This was indicated in the details on their web site, so I was fine with it.)

(In comparison, just a couple initials — checkboxes on the kiosk UI — at Alamo, and I could have paid with the debit card in advance, with no deposit.  In positive comparison, though, I refuse to rent from Thrifty because of their forms: the last time I rented from them [about a decade ago, so it may have changed], their agents had to verbally read you the entire text rather than letting you read it, making the rental process about 5 times as long as it needs to be.)

Because it was a holiday weekend, I didn’t get the car I had reserved, but I ended up with a larger one at the same price.  (That’s fairly standard.  I once ended up with a huge Lincoln or some such huge beast at compact price point because they oversold all their lower classes of car.)  The car was not well cleaned inside, including what looked like shoe marks on the passenger seat.  I got the impression that, as a second or third tier company, Ace probably gets last year’s models from the first tier companies and then doesn’t put much into maintenance and cleaning.  Or else people who rent from them don’t take care of the rentals very well.  (Or I could have just got an undertended one due to the weekend’s pressure to turn things through quickly, an exception.)

The car worked fine for the weekend.

When I returned it on Monday, I fortunately didn’t have to wait 45 minutes to be served.  But during the check-in, the agent sat behind his terminal and clicked this, paused, clicked that, paused, click the other, paused.  After what felt like 15 minutes of whatever he was doing (was probably only 5), he told me that his computer had frozen, but my deposit would be refunded.

(The mainline rental companies check you in when you drive up.  They check the gas and mileage and look for any damage, give you a receipt, and you’re done.  I have no idea what all he was entering, why he was so slow, or how long he was trying to do something with the frozen computer, nor why he didn’t ask anyone for help.  Implication: this isn’t a quick process for them and the freezes happen often enough to not be remarkable.)

After returning home, I monitored my checking account to see when the deposit would free up.  Usually the rental and deposit will be issued separately, with the deposit being an account hold which will free in a maximum of 72 hours because it wasn’t actually charged.  Since I brought the car back fine, the rental charge would go through and the hold would be allowed to expire.  Not with Ace: on Wednesday morning, the entire $300 had been deducted from my account!  I called them up and they said this was standard practice and the deposit would be refunded.  On Friday, it still had not, and a call said 3 to 7 business days (and thus maybe not until the next Wednesday); at this point, I had my suspicions that I might have to fight them over things.  Fortunately, end of day Tuesday (6 business days out), the $300 was refunded to my account.

Notice what didn’t happen: because the two charges were lumped together, by refunding it, they didn’t actually charge me for the rental at all.  So I lost access to $250 for a week, but ended up technically ahead of the game.  (But with a bad taste for the company in the process.)

So, in summary:
  • Very slow check-out service
  • Dirty car
  • Slow and uncommunicative check-in service
  • Deposit not done as an account hold and only refunded over a week later
  • Ultimately, they couldn’t even process the rental fee correctly and lost their money
Conclusion: a company that doesn’t deserve the business.  I would have spent $100 on renting from Alamo rather than (expecting to spend) $50 at Ace, but I would have had a much better experience.  If I had been under any sort of deadline or distance pressure for the weekend, the $50 difference would have been totally worth it.  Lesson learned.

Updated on October 14, 2010
Turns out that the rental fee did eventually show up, charged to the original credit card I had made the reservation with.  The computer freeze had blocked me from getting a close-out receipt, so I couldn’t know that at the time.

Following my rental, they sent me an online customer service survey request, and I took the opportunity to rate them pretty poorly.  (I refrained from outright cussing the out.)  A couple days ago, I got a letter thanking me for taking the survey and expressing that they were sorry that I didn’t have a good rental experience.  They also included one of those ubiquitous grocery tote bags.  Wonder if I can turn it inside out so their logo doesn’t show?

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Movie Review
    — Shanghai Surprise

I recently bought the DVD of the 1986 Madonna/Sean Penn film Shanghai Surprise for $4 from a bin at a local drug store.  (I also bought Shut Up & Sing, Kinsey, the 2007 musical version of Hairspray, Larry the Cable Guy: Health Inspector, and maybe a couple others.  They were cheap, how bad could they be, right?)

I had to ask.  Oh, this one was painful to watch.  It involves a missionary hiring a ne’er-do-well to help her find a million dollars worth of missing opium to be used as medicine, dealing with corrupt police, gangsters, and high class prostitutes along the way.

(It was made worse by the George Harrison soundtrack.  Not much good music in the film.  I had thougth this was the movie that Madonna’s “Live to Tell” song came from — that was really why I bought it — but that was the other 1986 Sean Penn film, At Close Range.  Damn, what was Madonna thinking here?  At least get a hit song on the soundtrack, woman!)

The settings — filmed in Hong Kong and Macau — aren’t bad, but the story is full of holes and oddities like why they needed to hire someone in the first place and how Madonna’s missionary character had all the money she was throwing around (and why she wasn’t just buying opium with it instead).

Beyond that, there are two major problems with the film itself:
  • It can’t decide if it wants to be serious and maybe even noir, or if it wants to be a wacky caper film.  There are a number of characters which work in one or the other, but not both.  Every time it seems to be going serious, a WTF? scene or campy character shows up (I never did figure out what Kronk’s role was, other than to kick the plot down the alley when it stalled), but all the scenes which seem aimed at wacky hijinks pull up short and end up as weird/goofy rather than actually funny.  (Most likely, the producers wanted something in the vein of Romancing the Stone, but the story didn’t have the chops for that.)
  • The dialogue delivery is atrocious.  Of course, you can’t do a lot when the words themselves are poorly put together, but the flat, badly inflected stuff coming out of Madonna’s mouth (no, not her music!) is just embarrassing.  But you can’t just blame Madonna, since Sean Penn’s lines come off just as bad.  You’ve got to blame the director, I guess.
What salvages this DVD, though, are the extras, which were put together some 15 or 20 years after the fact.  In addition to a “Madonna in 1986” piece with a couple media mavens discussing her career up to and after that point, there is one with the writer and one of the actors discussing the film and the problems it had (including the crew nearly rebelling due to [pri]Madonna), and another with several comedians talking about their favorite and least favorite parts of the film.  If you felt embarrassed for the actors or felt guilty about mentally savaging parts of the film, you’ll find these people agreeing with you just about point for point.

Any fan of campy, terrible movies will tell you that viewing the movie as a shared experience can help salvage (rather than “savage”) it — you have others to discuss, commiserate, and moan with — and sometimes can even elevate a piece of shlock into a form of art.  (Hello, Rocky Horror Picture Show!)  This one will never make “art”, but it maybe can be enjoyable pain when shared with others.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Flying Hither and Yon

Bit the bullet last night and today and booked my upcoming travel for the next few trips:
  • San Francisco for Sundance Stompede
    October 15-18
    Virgin America
    Late morning flight going, with a somewhat tight deadline to get to my workshop in time
    Mid-morning return on Monday and then direct to the office from the airport
  • Madison for the IAGLCWDC Hoedown
    October 28-31
    Redeye flight going, to get there in time for morning workshops and afternoon meetings
    Early evening flight back
  • Washington DC for Mid-Atlantic Leather (my 12th time there!)
    January 14-17
    American (via frequent flyer miles)
    Very early morning flight going, but it’s also business class; I can nap at the hotel when I get there
    Noon flight back
Total cost for the three tickets is $510, so not too bad.

I’ll probably have an additional trip to book in a month, to go to Palm Springs for New Year’s.  Next flying trip after that probably won’t be until Memorial Day, to wherever the next IAGLCWDC summer hoedown ends up being.

I find it interesting that my frequent flyer programs have shifted over the years.  My first frequent flyer trip was via TWA back in 1991.  I wanted to fly to Seattle for Norwescon, but flights were horrifically expensive at the time, but a travel agent friend found a deal to do three round trips to Los Angeles on TWA at like $75 each (I literally did “fly down, catch the return an hour later”, three times), which would get me a free flight from San Jose to Seattle. (Seems very weird in retrospect.  The flight to Seattle must have been priced at $350 or more; compare to the $150 or less you could often get a decade later.)

During the 1990s, American got almost all my business (with some in-California stuff going to Southwest, back when it was actually affordable; for this San Francisco trip, Southwest was almost double other options!)  In the late 1990s, Alaska took over as my preference for West Coast flights; in San Jose, they had a dedicated set of 2 or 3 gates less than 100 yards from their ticket counter — most convenient travel setup ever!  (Even after 9/11, you could still arrive at the airport less than an hour before your flight with no worries.)

For the past decade, since I moved to Seattle, I’ve been slowly eating through my American miles.  I don’t know that I’ve flown them but maybe once in the last five years.  Due to inactivity, my last miles (about 41,000) were going to expire in December, so I used 37,500 for the trip to DC, including the to-DC leg being business class (so I’ll get breakfast for the first leg and booze for the second; I couldn’t have had a flight with fewer miles in non-business, although a redeye option would have been available, so no complaint).

In the past few years, Alaska use has also slowed some.  Actually, I’ve still flown a decent amount on Alaska, but mostly using either miles or their special deal where a smaller amount of miles cuts the price in half, making it much more decent to fly coast-to-coast on them.  So my mileage block on Alaska is down in the 40K range these days, as well.

(Mmm, I remember having credit cards that gave me miles on American, and maybe one that gave them on Alaska as well.  Those really helped build up the balances.  Really built up the credit card balances, too, of course, which is why I don’t have those cards any more!)

I flew United a couple years ago and have about 1000 miles from them, which will apparently expire in the next few months.  May it be soon, so I can never hear from them again.  Every time I’ve flown with them in the last 15 years (about three times), I’ve had a bad taste in my mouth.

More recently, my miles have been accumulating on Delta and now on Virgin America, where I have nearly a free flight’s worth on each; these trips may push me over that edge.

I wonder where my miles will live in another 10 years?

Updated on September 21, 2010
Crap.  Couldn’t even remember my own schedule!  Madison redeye is one of those true “last flight out” things, leaving at 12:50 am, which is close to when I usually go to sleep anyway, so if I remember a pillow and ear plugs, I’ll be able to sleep some.

I opted for the DC redeye after all, with an 11:30 departure and a 3 am (Pacific time, ugh!) layover in Dallas, but it gets me in early enough to both shop the leather mart and catch up on sleep for the partying and cruising that night.  And that’s what I’m there for, after all!

Monday, September 13, 2010

April–September, 2003 blog posts

I’ve finished incorporating the April–September, 2003 posts from my old “Bouncing Off the Walls” blog into this one, 29 items total.  In the process, I’ve re-edited all the entries, added and corrected weblinks, and such.

Here are links to the 6 months covered, so you can read what I was up to back then:
April 2003 (6 items)
May 2003 (7 items)
June 2003 (5 items)
July 2003 (no items)
August 2003 (1 item)
September 2003 (8 items)
A few of the sex-related posts are on my other blog, here:
June 2003 (1 item)
July 2003 (1 item)
Between the two blogs, I’m now just under 300 posts total.

Thursday, September 2, 2010


Cribbed from Schott’s Vocab blog at the New York Times website:
“Satispassion” is a word meaning “atonement by an adequate degree of suffering”.
I find this a great word, because it matches up with a concept for which I haven’t had a word before.

Think about the times when you (or someone else) does something bad or stupid.  You profusely apologize to the person you hurt or insulted or whatever, but their forgiveness is not enough for you (or maybe there was no actual injured party to forgive you).  You have to mentally beat yourself up and generally cause yourself to suffer until you feel that you have atoned for the bad deed.  Or perhaps the other person technically forgives you but reminds you frequently and pointedly of what you did, causing you to relive the issue until he/she feel you have suffered enough for their tastes.

“Satispassion” — we experience it quite a lot, I think.

To Heck with Science!: Ow, My Eye!

“To Heck with Science” spotlights pop culture references to science that are stupidly wrong.

From Secret Six #25, page 2.  Last panel, dialogue from supervillain Lady Vic:
I was aiming for the pupil and hit the cornea.
From Wikipedia:
The cornea is the transparent front part of the eye that covers the iris, pupil, and anterior chamber.
And a schematic of the human eye.

You can’t hit the pupil without hitting the cornea.  This is why supervillains always lose: no appreciation for science!

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Trip Report: Portland for Alder Street Hoedown #2

Before the Trip

August 7–8 marked my second long road trip of the summer on the scooter, this time down to Portland.  I had intended to ride to Portland for Pride in mid-June, but that got stopped by needing scooter repairs (and given the heavy rain on the way down, no big loss).  I was then planning to ride in mid-July for the Alder Street Hoedown, but repairs were still underway, so I again had to drive.  Third time’s the charm, I guess.

Plotting my route, I knew I wanted to avoid the steep hill north of Olympia where I–5 climbs the Nisqually ridge.  After some online research, it appeared that Highway 507 would be my best bet, through Roy, Yelm, Rainier, and Tenino.  Looking further and comparing Google Maps time estimates, it appeared that staying off I–5 altogether until near Centralia was doable, adding only like 15 minutes to the trip.  Indeed, I could take Rainier Avenue through south Seattle and Renton until it turned into Highway 167, get off onto 161 and then 512 at Puyallup, and then off that at Parkland to head to Spanaway and pick up 507 there.

(I don’t think Google Maps does a good job of estimating times through the urban district of Parkland/Spanaway or the backroads of Highway 507, where you slow down every 6 miles for the next town.  The route took longer than I expected.)

This weekend was also Seafair in Seattle, with the Blue Angels roaring overhead and the hydroplane races on Lake Washington.  One of the major viewing locations is about a mile from my house, which means that traffic is horrific on this weekend, and thus I’m pleased to be able to leave town for Seafair.  I’ve only been in Seattle this weekend maybe 3 or 4 times in the past decade.

The Ride Down

This weekend, rain was threatening, with low overcast clouds.  (I’m told that the Blue Angels had to alter their routine to compensate for the clouds.)  I felt a little schadenfreude toward the crowds who were going to get rained up.  But of course, that tends to come back at you: I had to ride in the rain from home down to Southcenter Mall (about 10 miles), although then it mostly cleared up.

I rode down to Yelm, where I stopped for gas and decides to shed the rain pants.  I then continued out to pick up I–5 at Grand Mound, and then headed south to Centralia.  I stopped at the Centerville Western Wear store there and picked up a new western shirt — forest green with “WRANGLER” in gold thread on the pocket and the sleeve.  (I almost bought one in plum with silver threading on the pocket and back instead, but decided I look better in the green.)

After a pretty medicore French dip sandwich at Arby’s, I got back on the road.  From there, I had to deal with rain again until Kelso (most of an hour), where I stopped for gas again.

You Can’t Go Home Again

From 4th to 7th grades (over 30 years ago), my family lived in the Hazel Dell area of Vancouver, Washington.  (“Vancouver A.D.” I like to call it, vs. “Vancouver B.C.”.  Heh.)  Since I had the time, I detoured through north Vancouver, past Columbia High School and down to 95th Street, and tried to find the second place we lived.  The big tree I recall in the back yard wasn’t there anymore, but the juniper-laden planting on the corner was, so I think I found it.  I then rode down to 85th Street, to the first house we lived in, and I think I found it.  I think it’s even the same color as when we lived there.  I took pictures of both houses, plus Dwight David Eisenhower Elementary and Jason Lee Junior High, both of which I attended.  The latter looked basically identical, but the elementary school had been completely rebuilt, I think.

Time blurs all sorts of memories, but one of the biggest as you grow up is the sense of scale.  Things were vastly closer together than my memory has them.  The house on 85th Street was only a block from the Junior High (which I didn’t attend until we had moved 10 blocks away).  And it was only maybe a mile to whatever shopping area had existed back then and to the freeway.  Today I would walk that without thinking, but then it was vastly far away.  Makes me think that as I kid, I never tended to go more than 4 or 5 blocks from home, and often probably not even off my own block.  Weird feeling.

Alder Street Hoedown

This trip, I stayed at the Courtyard by Marriott near the Oregon Convention Center.  This was convenient to the PPAA for the dancing (more so that the Econo Lodge was in July), and the room was good.  I again used Hotwire, getting the room for just $75.

While DJ Crystal has been on vacation for the summer, Rain Country Dance Association in Seattle has been working with Reuben and Pamlin in Portland to put on dance nights to fill the gap — same space, schedule, lesson plan, etc. — dubbed the Alder Street Hoedown.  We want to ensure that Portland has a growing community, and two months with no dancing wouldn’t help.  Rain Country is providing DJs, some teaching, and some monetary support to ensure the events at least break even.

Terry DJed for the Alder Street Hoedown, and taught the line dances — Picnic Polka and Cowboy Cha Cha (partner flow dance).  When I got there at 9:00, they had just started the second one (which really should have been done at 9:00, but they apparently started late), but I didn’t hear griping.

The Alder Street Hoedown nights look to be a success, at least in terms of maintaining the Portland dance community during Crystal’s vacation and not losing money.  In fact, Reuben says they have had as many people as usually seen in the spring, which would be an uptick in attendance over what would normally be expected in the summer (given good weather pulling people away, and summer vacations), so that’s very good.  As a side angle, there has long been some dissatisfaction with Crystal as a DJ from some Portland dancers — if nothing else than because she’s the only one the dancers experience — and by giving them a little variety, perhaps some leverage can be built up to shift Crystal toward music selections which people will like more.

There will be one more Alder Street Hoedown this summer, on August 21 (past by the time I’m writing this), with Keith as the DJ.  Hope it also goes well.

Getting Laid

I loosely planned to go to the Eagle Portland after the dance.  As part of Oregon Leather Pride Week, they were hosting a uniform party, so I had brought a sailor shirt with me.  This meant that I also didn’t have to pack my leathers for the trip, which I was content leaving out of the scooter trunk.

(I am not really into uniform fetish — I’ve never been in the military and I’m not attracted to the look, the attire, or the attitude for roleplay.  The only military backgrounds I know in my family are late 1950s National Guard from my father, early 1940s Army from my mother’s father [who abandoned the family], and an early 19th century Prussian cavalry officer on my father’s side of the family.  I’m anal-retentive enough to know that I would need for any real uniform I wore to be as complete and accurate as I could make it, and I’m not about to try to put together that cavalry outfit!  So this shirt is one of the few concessions to that fetish that I have, enough to be “in gear” at such an event without worrying much about accuracy and completeness.)

But cruising on Grindr at dinner time, I connected with someone who apparently connected the red on the leather harness in my pic to other activities.  (He’s not the first to do so.  I’m actually surprised by this, since so many guys seem to clueless at times, but I’m happy when it happens.)  I had to go to the dance, and he had other early evening plans, but we arranged to get together later at his place.

Suffice to say, I did get laid.  Real good like!  Small hands, great attitude, and a Volcano Vaporizer — I was totally floating for the evening.  Now if we can just arrange a repeat visit, or have him come to visit me.

The Trip Back

After brunch on Sunday at the Village Inn, I rode down to Columbia Scooters to check out what they carry — which turned out to be Kymco (same as my scooter).  I talked to the owner for a while, who was (like many people) surprised that I could ride mine to Portland and Vancouver like I do.  He asked whether I hear engine strain noises, since I’m definitely pushing it beyond expected usage patterns, but no, haven’t heard any whines or the like.  I bought a lock-down cable, since I don’t have one of those.  I also drooled over the Kymco Quannon 150 sport bikes (the second branch-out of Kymco into motorcycles, following the Venox from a few years ago).  He said they haven’t sold well, so he’s going to be dropping the price in August.  (Hmmm.  No, damn, can’t afford one now!)

When I go to Portland, I usually like to go out to the nude beach at Rooster Rock State Park, about 20 miles east of Portland.  Facing a long scooter trip home, though, I didn’t want to go all that way out, and I had been there two weeks before and found much of the trek to the beach area a horrible muddy bog.  Portland does have a second nude beach, at Sauvie Island about 20 miles west of Portland.  I researched where it is and initially hoped to go there on the way down on Saturday, but the weather stopped that.  On Sunday, the weather report was for sunny but cool weather, making it not worth going then, either.

However, in the process, I had investigated an alternate route to Sauvie Island, to avoid going to Portland and then doubling back 20 miles north.  There is a bridge across the Columbia at Longview, and then state Highway 30 goes down the Oregon side of the river, through Rainier, Columbia City, St. Helens, Scappoose, Linnton.  So rather than take I–5 back through Vancouver, I took the road less travelled up the river the Longview.  (Interesting: I would go through Rainier in both Oregon and Washington, and through Columbia City in both states [it’s the neighborhood just south of my house in Seattle].)

The weather might not have been quite warm enough for nude sunbathing, but it was wonderful for riding a state highway.  I strapped my riding coat to the seat behind me (with that new cable) and just wore the new Western shirt atop my t-shirt.  Delightful ride.  Once I got through Longview and to Kelso, before getting on I–5, I put the coat back on.

Got gas in Kelso.  At Centralia, hit the usual grind-to-a-halt that haunts I–5 north from there to Olympia every Sunday afternoon.  (Literally, almost every weekend!  And for no discernable reason like an accident or a narrowing of the highway.)  So I got off at the bypass to Bucoda, which connected me up again with 507 at Tenino.  And then retraced my route from Saturday (with a couple more stops for gas and snacks along the way), but was able to ride through Renton and south Seattle now that Seafair was done.