Monday, March 17, 2014

Adventures of a Top Amazon Reviewer

I'm a top-500 Amazon reviewer, which means that companies and authors often write to ask me to review their stuff. I look forward to that and usually love doing it, but every now and then a request comes in that's really unethical, obnoxious, or crazy. Herewith, I present some of my least favorite types of review requests so that if you are a company or author seeking reviewers on Amazon, you'll have a better idea what we top Amazon reviewers like and don't like.

1. "Please help me out."

Probably my most frequently-received bad request is from self-published authors asking me to help them out because "this is my first novel and I put it on Amazon yesterday and I could really use feedback!" I don't review out of pity. I don't select anything for review that I wouldn't have been interested enough to consider buying, so I won't review things that sound amateurish or are in genres that don't interest me a lot.

As a reviewer with a conscience, my loyalty is not to the author. I'm not writing to "help you out" (unless I happen to LOVE your book, in which case it'll make me feel good to know that my review might boost your success-- but that's a side benefit). I'm reviewing to help potential buyers decide whether or not it's worth spending money and time on your book or product. If I don't start out with some confidence that I'm going to like it, I won't accept it for review in part because it doesn't give me any pleasure to harshly review a new writer's work. Most poorly-written books sink on their own, without my help.

2. "Review this thing I'm not going to send you."

This one blew my mind. A man who was selling canvas artwork prints on Amazon wrote a polite letter asking me if I would please review any of his products.

"Thanks for the offer!" I wrote back, along with a list of three or four prints I'd love to review.

"Okay, if I ever get enough money to send one to you, I will," he said.

Wha?

I wasn't sure if I was misinterpreting-- had he seriously sent me that original request in the hopes that I'd review canvas artwork that I'd never seen? And then I found the proof-- he'd actually convinced another reviewer to do just that. She went around on all his paintings writing five-star reviews that said things like, "This looks nice! I'm sure it would be nice on my living room wall," and "This looks like something I'd love to own because I sure do like the color blue!"

*Headsmack.* People, if you're not actually going to send a product, don't ask for a review. You're asking me to recommend something I've never even seen, and that's nutty and likely to backfire on you badly if you hit upon a reviewer more snarky than I am.

3. "Positive reviews only."

I was interested in reviewing hair extensions until the proprietor told me that she would send them to me, but that she would EXPECT me to shout from the rooftops about how great they were "even if you hate them, which I doubt you will."

No, you don't get to buy my integrity with a set of hair extensions. If I hate them, I'm going to say so. I won't expect you to send me anything else unless you're masochistic, but I'm still going to be honest.

4. Frequent follow-ups.

I review as quickly as I can, but that's not always quick. Most companies are respectful of that and either don't follow up at all, or just nudge me once, and that's cool. But then there are the ones that follow up within days to "make sure you got it," then a day or two later to "see if you have any questions," another day or two later to "check in with you," etc. I tend to put those people at the end of my to-review list.

5. "I've put you on my mailing list."

If I agree to review your vitamin B-12 pills, that doesn't mean that I want to be on your weekly roundup of specials and "helpful nutritional facts." It just means I've agreed to review one thing. You can ASK if I want to be on your mailing list, but don't ever put me there without my permission. It's not likely to influence my review in a positive way.

6. "First, I'll slam your competing reviews."

One of the ways we become "top reviewers" is by the percentage and number of "helpful" votes we get on our reviews. If readers find our reviews very helpful, we move up the ranks, and if they vote us unhelpful, we move down the ranks. What I've noticed is an annoying trend. Let's say I've given a positive review to an external battery. It's just sitting there with a couple of "helpful" votes. Then I get an "unhelpful" vote, quickly followed by a request for me to review a competitor's product.

Look, we're not dumb. But voting our reviews as "unhelpful" and then asking us to review your stuff is nasty, and doesn't help your cause. You can vote all the positive reviews as "unhelpful" and it'll never make them disappear or count less. Just produce a great product and let it stand on its own merits. If it deserves to win out in the marketplace, then reviewers will note that.

7. "I want video reviews, in six languages."

Don't ask too much of your reviewers. Many are now requesting video reviews-- which is fine to request, but not demand-- and asking us to also put up our reviews on other sites. One informed me that I was to also put my review on Amazon.co.uk, which would have required me to start a new account on that site for the sheer purpose of publicizing their product. No thank you.

8. Bribes for good reviews.

It's explicitly against Amazon's rules to offer reviewers money or any sorts of perks aside from the free product itself. Unless you're offering me a trip to Hawaii, in which case your secret is safe with me. (KIDDING. Mostly.)

On the other hand, one of the nicest review experiences I've had came from a company with just one product on the market. I did a video review (they didn't ask me to-- I just thought it was awesome and wanted to show how it worked), and the review got a lot of attention and comments. That December, the owners of the company sent me a little Christmas present and a beautiful thank you card. What a nice touch! They weren't buttering me up to review anything else-- it was just a sweet gesture to thank me for taking the time to do the review.

9. We know about form letters.

"Dear Jenna Glatzer: I have read many of your reviews and found them quite well-written and helpful! You seem to be a perfect candidate to review our new product..."

Several of us reviewers know each other online. Sometimes we compare notes, and often what we find is that everyone in the top 100, 500, or 1000 got exactly the same e-mail. Flattery is nice and all, but sincerity is nicer. It's okay to admit that you simply found us on a list of top Amazon reviewers, not that you particularly noticed us while you were reading reviews as an entertaining hobby. Our feelings won't be hurt. It's nice that you're offering us stuff to review regardless of how you found us.

--
Please understand that we're also required to disclose that we got the product free for review.

Again, these types of experiences are in the minority. The majority of my experiences as a reviewer have been good (or great).

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Wednesday, December 11, 2013

BlissLights winner!

Congratulations to Jennifer Kennedy! Random.org chose you as the winner of the BlissLights green Spright. Hope it helps to light up your holidays!


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Tuesday, December 03, 2013

BlissLights: The Easiest Christmas Lights Ever

On Halloween, we admired a neighbor's house-- it was lit up with thousands of tiny green lights. Looked a lot like this:
BlissLights Outdoor Indoor Firefly Light Projector with TimerOn first glance, it looked like she had hung icicle lights all over the house, but when we got closer, we realized the lights were projected from a small device on the edge of her walkway: "BlissLights," it read.

I asked the woman who owned the house about it and she said, "Aren't they great? I found them on QVC. When it's Christmas time, I just add the red lights, too."

Not only did I think it looked great-- like stars in the night sky-- but it dawned on me that this was exactly what I wanted for my new house. This marks my first year as a single homeowner, and it hasn't gone as smoothly as one might hope in my situation... mold in the kitchen cabinets, a contractor who ruined my floor, a broken washing machine, no heat... the problems have seemed never-ending, and most of them are beyond my abilities to fix. I pride myself on being a quasi-handy woman, and thought I'd be able to handle most of my house stuff myself. Nope. I've been outsmarted again and again when it comes to electrical, plumbing, and other major issues, and I've had a mix of honest and dishonest contractors here. Seems that when they realize they're dealing with a single mom, about half of them decide to be generous and helpful and the other half think, "I can get away with anything! There's no man here to check my work."

Anyway, now that the holidays are rolling around, the last thing I could do was to hire someone else to come hang my Christmas lights for me-- and I was not up for climbing a ladder to reach my second-story roof. Honestly, I've done the lights every year in every house I've rented, but they've always been single-story houses and it's still been my least-favorite Christmas chore. I don't like being on a ladder. I don't like figuring out how to program the timer, or remembering to turn on and off the lights every night. I don't like taking the lights back down in the bitter cold of January. I don't like the whole process, but I do it because I have an awesome little daughter and I want her to live in a house full of Christmas spirit. I don't want to be the Grinch of the block with no beautiful lights.

But this. This is amazeballs.

Let me tell you how you set up BlissLights: 

You plug it in.

That's it.

Not only do you get to avoid the whole ladder thing and stringing lights thing, but you even get to avoid the timer-- when you plug it in, it automatically remembers the time you plugged it in and it stays on for six hours every night starting at the time you originally plugged it in. So if you plug it in at 5 p.m., your lights will go on every night from 5-11 p.m. If you decide you don't like the time you originally plugged it in, all you do is unplug it and replug it at the time you DO want it to come on.

It's weatherproof and comes with a stake to stake it into the ground wherever you choose. You can light up the outside or inside of your house, your landscaping, a big tree, whatever. The green light is the brightest and shows up best; blue is the next best, and red won't show well on landscaping. BlissLights sent me the green Spright to review. It can cover an area up to 25' by 25', so you might need just one (like me) or you might need more than one for full coverage.

GIVEAWAY

Now for the even cooler part. BlissLights is also going to give one of my readers the same light they gave me-- the green Spright, which is currently backordered.

Hey, thanks, BlissLights!

Enter now through 11:59 p.m. EST on December 9, and I'll announce the winner on December 10. Here's how to enter:

MANDATORY:


OPTIONAL FOR EXTRA ENTRIES:

  • Follow GhostwriterJG on Twitter. Comment below with your Twitter name.
  • Review any of my books anywhere. Post a link in the comments. (You can find my books at www.jennaglatzer.com or by searching for "Jenna Glatzer" on Amazon.)
  • Subscribe to this blog and let me know below that you've done it.
  • Join Ebates using my referral ID and let me know below that you've done it. 
  • Share this link on Facebook or Twitter for three extra entries!:
    Win BlissLights, the easiest Christmas lights, at http://tinyurl.com/n8t4xnt
Please comment below SEPARATELY for each entry.

Good luck!

Where to find BlissLights:


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Monday, November 25, 2013

Common Core and What I Believe: An Open Letter to Our Education Department from a White Suburban Mom

Politicians are excellent at saying deeply stupid things. Recently, US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan was defending the much-hated Common Core when he said, "It’s fascinating to me that some of the pushback is coming from, sort of, white suburban moms who-- all of a sudden-- their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought they were, and that’s pretty scary."

Hi, Arne. Thought I'd give you a little educating of your own.

When I was pregnant with my daughter, I prayed what lots of people might consider a strange prayer: "Please let her be smart, but not too smart."

I was on the verge of "too smart" in early elementary school. I was the smartest in my class most of the time, and I did feel isolated and different. I didn't want that for her. Intelligence is great, but there's a reason valedictorians have higher suicide rates than the rest of the population. It's no fun feeling like no one understands you.

Now let me tell you what I got: a child who is far more gifted than I ever was.

She asked me to teach her to read when she was 2 and to teach her algebra when she was 4. Her preschool director told me that she needed to be skipped a grade. I refused. Didn't want her to be any more "different" than need be. Then her kindergarten principal called in reading and math specialists to do weeks of testing on her, and at the end of it, he sat me down and said, "I've never seen anything like this. The assistant superintendent has never seen anything like this. In all our years of education, she is the most gifted child we've ever seen and we're in uncharted territory trying to figure out how to educate her."

He suggested I skip her, and then still do enrichment on top of that. I said no. He suggested I find a school more geared toward gifted programming. I scrimped and saved and the following year, I did get her into the only public school in my area known for gifted programming. Within two months, I was again sitting down with the superintendent and hearing that she needed to be skipped. She was 6 years old and reading at a 9th grade level, with 8th grade comprehension. Even in this school, she was just too far ahead. I finally gave in and allowed her to move up a grade. She's doing just fine. Do I think she's going to cure cancer one day? Heck yes, I do.

I tell you all this, dear Arne, because I'd like to blow up your stupid perception of why we parents and teachers hate the Common Core.

I'm a white suburban mom. Do you think "their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought they were" applies to me? Let's get it straight: You can throw any test you like at my daughter. She's going to do wonderfully. Her school is excellent. And I think you can stuff your Common Core where the sun don't shine.

I will be opting her out of the tests.

Of course, Arne, you're not alone in your willful ignorance of the real issues. You have cronies like Marc Tucker, president of the National Center on Education and the Economy, who said, "While American parents are pulling their kids out of tests because the results make the kids feel bad, parents in other countries are looking at the results and asking themselves how they can help their children do better."

Let's deconstruct that in two parts.

First, again, I'm clearly not pulling my kid out of the tests because the results will make her feel bad. I'm pulling her because this curriculum and these tests are wrong for everybody, even the kids like mine who will do well on them.

Second, you're delusional if you think that people in other countries are looking at our Common Core results and asking themselves how to help their children do better on a curriculum that is failing. Yes, it's clear: The curriculum is failing. You may want to say that our kids are failing, but when we're looking at only 30% passing grades, then it's obvious as anything that it's the Common Core standards at fault-- and you set them up for this intentionally, which is a crappy thing to do.

Open your ears and hear this, Arne and your ilk:

I don't believe that every second of every school day needs to be filled with dancing and laughter.

I do believe that young children should be allowed to be young children.

*

I don't believe in sheltering our children from every one of life's disappointments.

I do believe that they should not be made to feel like failures every day of their formative years before their self-concept is even formed.



I don't believe all testing is evil.

I do believe that the amount of testing you're now expecting is counterproductive and unhealthy. Children shouldn't be vomiting and wetting their pants and crying in class because they're in fear of these all-day tests.

*

I don't believe we need to bubble-wrap our kids.

I do believe that if you can read my previous statement about the kids vomiting and wetting their pants and then respond to it with any comment about how parents today just want to "bubble wrap," then you are a shitty person.

*

I don't believe that our education system was perfect before and didn't need some work.

I do believe it was irresponsible and negligent to unleash an entirely new curriculum on our children that had never been field-tested, was not approved by educators, without properly training teachers about how to implement it, and without first figuring out if the material was developmentally appropriate (hint: it isn't!).

*

I don't believe that teachers should not be held responsible for how well they teach.

I do believe that it's short-sighted to tie teacher's evaluation scores to how well their students do on standardized tests, which creates an environment where teachers may resent students who don't learn as quickly, even if they're trying their best.

*

I don't believe we should have low educational standards.

I do believe you're using a straw man argument to even pretend that American parents want lower standards. You know damn well that we want our kids to succeed, we want them to be as well-educated as possible, we want them to learn the value of hard work, and we want our country to measure up globally. We just know you're going about it entirely wrong, and then sticking your fingers in your ears when we tell you how it's affecting our kids and our teachers.

*

I don't believe the entire academic day should be freewheeling and unscheduled.

I do believe my child's teacher's exasperation when she tells me that she is unable to teach the class about what Veteran's Day is because there is no time in the curriculum for that, now that every minute of her day is taken up by the new requirements.

*

I don't believe we need to dumb down tests so every kid will pass.

I do believe that when I fail a test, I know it either means that I didn't work hard enough, or I wasn't smart enough. If I worked very hard, then I can eliminate that option. Luckily, I'm in my late 30s with a successful career and a lot of evidence that says I am capable and intelligent even if I fail in some ways. Children have no such evidence to fall back on. When they work hard and fail repeatedly, they get the message that they're stupid. And that's the message they will grow up believing. They won't know that it's the curriculum that's stupid. Then you've reared a nation of kids who will stop trying, because trying doesn't get them anywhere. You've intentionally set them up to fail with the strange notion that this will somehow make them smarter. Good job, Education Department!

*

I don't believe in "Race to the Top."

I do believe you're wasting valuable class time and eating into our budgets with all the time and money we now have to spend getting ready for these tests, buying all new materials, and implementing the tests. I don't want one more minute stolen from my daughter's education when I know that her teacher has more to teach-- and WANTS to teach more. Your high-stakes testing is stealing from what matters in the classroom.

*

I don't believe Bill and Melinda Gates intended for this to happen.

I do believe they're wonderful, charitable people who have done terrific things with their money, and I believe they had the best of intentions when they awarded this tremendous grant to develop the Common Core. My heart breaks when I think about all the ways that money could have been better spent.

*

I don't believe homework should be simple.

I do believe that I, as a college graduate, should be able to understand my 2nd grader's homework instructions. What I'm seeing are math dittos that seem to deliberately make things ten times harder than they should be, with Byzantine instructions and questionable objectives.

*

I don't believe we should let our kids be lazy.

I do believe that the experiences I remember from my own school days have little to do with parts of speech, advanced physics, or calculus (the latter two of which I have never used again) and everything to do with field trips (we even had a high school French teacher who took us TO FRANCE), exercises where we got to learn more about our classmates' cultures and lives, celebrating birthdays, getting chosen to take the class pet home for vacation, and making up songs about the multiplication tables. Our kids spend so much of their lives in school that it's unrealistic to expect it to strictly be about academic achievement. School is and should also be a place for great social growth-- to learn how to work with other people, how to listen and talk in public, how to help someone who is struggling, how to be a decent person and how to stand up for yourself if you encounter someone who is not a decent person.

There are a million things to learn in school that you won't find in a textbook, and Common Core standards steal away the time they have for any kind of real growth and development. You know what lesson from kindergarten has made the biggest difference in my life? How to be a good friend. Where is the room for that in the Common Core?

*

I don't believe all teachers are effective.

I do believe that this system mostly hurts the ones who are. I believe that when you turn teachers into robots and take away their ability to teach properly, it's the ones who actually care who are going to leave the profession and find a different way to use their talents.

*

I don't believe my child will fail, no matter what you do to her.

I do believe that many of her classmates will. We've already heard from social workers and school psychologists that there is an increase in suicidal thoughts and self-mutilation among high schoolers, and this program is brand new. Kids who go through the Common Core their whole academic careers are going to have lower self-worth and higher depression rates. I don't want to think about kids committing suicide because you were too stubborn to change a failing curriculum.

In case you think I'm overreacting, a middle-schooler in my area jumped out a window to her death on day 1 of the 3-day ELA test.

I don't want my child attending classmates' funerals because you thought kids "shouldn't be coddled" and instead should be stressed out of their minds so that failure becomes their norm. And I stand in solidarity with every parent whose children are not doing well with this curriculum, because that's what decent people do. We don't let grownups abuse our kids.

It goes back to that thing I learned in kindergarten: When our friends are hurting, we stand by them and stand up for them. Well, Education Department, our friends are hurting and we're not going to sit around and watch it continue.

*

I don't believe the Education Department is listening.

I do believe you've underestimated us. We aren't going away, but the Common Core will. Get rid of this convoluted mess of a program of yours.



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Sunday, September 29, 2013

Ghostwriters Don't Write Stories About Ghosts

"What do you do?" the farmer asked me.

"I'm a ghostwriter."

"THAT'S SO COOL."

"It pretty much is."

"We're going to do a haunted house here in the fall. I should hire you to write a script for it."

It should have occurred to me then what he thought I actually did for a living, but it didn't. I just nodded with a bit of confusion-- because I've never been to a haunted house that actually had a script-- but it took until much later for me to realize that he thought ghostwriters write stories about ghosts.

I thought that was just a funny one-time occurrence until two other people recently asked me questions about ghosts and haunted houses. So I thought it was time to put this out there:

Ghostwriters don't write stories about ghosts. We write books (and articles, blog posts, whatever) in other people's voices. We're called ghostwriters because we're meant to be invisible-- the books are not "ours," they're our clients'. It's our job to interview our clients and do whatever research is needed to get the story told well in their point of view.

It's a bit of a misnomer these days, though, because ghostwriters do usually get some kind of name credit. Not always, but usually. If you see a book that says "By Joe Smith with Jane Brown," then Jane Brown was the ghostwriter. Joe Smith is usually in large type and Jane Brown is in smaller type. If the ghostwriter isn't credited on the cover, he or she is often credited in the acknowledgments, though not necessarily in a clear way (it may not say "Thanks to my ghostwriter, Jane Brown," but instead may say something like, "Thanks to Jane Brown for the editing help," or "Thanks to Jane Brown for her thoughtful assistance").

So, yeah, I don't write about hauntings. But my job? It really is still SO COOL.


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Thursday, September 26, 2013

Should You Donate to the "Help Me Save 300" Fund?

By now, you've probably heard about the teenagers who trashed Brian Holloway's former home, but just in case:

Former NFL player Brian Holloway lives in Florida now, but still has temporary ownership of his former residence, 742 NY #43 in Stephentown, NY. His son found out via Twitter that a bunch of kids had broken into the house and were throwing a huge-- and destructive-- party. The kids were taking photos and bragging about it on Twitter in real time. Police showed up and broke it up, and Brian understandably freaked out.

Then he did something that drew a ton of attention: Instead of just pursuing criminal and civil charges, he called out the kids and their parents online, reposting their photos and naming names. And he invited them to redeem themselves by showing up to help him clean up the damage. While plenty of locals have shown up to help, only one teen from the party and one parent showed up the first day, and four showed up on a second clean-up day.

Brian has been all over the media talking about this, and the need to save these kids' lives from drugs, alcohol, and other bad influences. I'm so with him up to here. It sounds like a noble response to something so horrible, and people have talked about what a classy reaction this has been.

Unfortunately, there are some holes in this story that need patching.

Brian has been asking for donations since this broke. It was unclear to me how the donations would be used, so I asked... four times (privately and publicly) and never got a response. First, he asked the teens to donate to a breast cancer charity, which is linked on his website. But right next to it is a general "Donate" button that goes to his own account, not a charity. He also set up a separate "GoFundMe" donation page, which says, "We're looking for donations to help with damages to the home and more importantly to help with funding to start the Help Me Save 300 movement." On first glance, I thought it was reasonable to ask for help fixing his home until I realized a few things:

-This is a very rich man, and this is his second home. It's listed for 1.5 million dollars, while his primary home is in Florida. He is clearly far richer than most of the people who are donating to him, and charges upwards of $10,000 for his speaking fees-- never mind his multiple other businesses. If I were a millionaire, I'd feel morally wrong asking strangers on the Internet in a difficult economy to help me fix up my second home that's for sale.

-Homeowner's insurance has never been mentioned, but should cover this-- as long as the house is actually his and he's paid his insurance.

-Right away, businesses stepped up and donated their supplies and labor. Community volunteers also showed up in large numbers. When one volunteer showed up to help, he realized the "destruction" had been overstated. He said, "I visited the house last week and saw no party damage that still needed to be cleaned or fixed. When I asked to see examples of damage, Holloway showed me a dirty sink and scuffed floors. Yes, there was graffiti and stained carpets, but both (and the scuffed floors too) existed before the party. On the day I was there, Holloway actually had volunteers loading boxes from a storage area into a car (photo above)." (See Chris Churchill's essay here.)

-Brian regularly speaks about wealth management, sales and marketing, and has a club just for wealthy Wall Street "power players" where they have to pay a minimum of $25,000 to join. See the press release here.

-Despite that he is all over the place talking about wealth and how to keep it, the house in question is in foreclosure and up for auction in October. He has not paid the mortgage or property taxes. It seems to follow a pattern-- many years ago, he owed $11,000 in child support during a divorce that wound up with a restraining order and charges against him for violating that restraining order. It seems to me that although he is capable of paying his debts, he chooses not to. It also seems that he has a problem taking personal responsibility, as evidenced by this very strange interview.

-Many of the kids have apologized and explained that they didn't know the house was broken into. They believed that the house was owned by the parents of the kid who threw the party.

-There has been no independent corroboration of any intent to sue him by any of the parents, though they're being demonized for it.

So let me explain one thing first: I absolutely know that what those kids did was wrong. Very wrong. Even if you DO believe the house belongs to the host's parents, you don't add graffiti to it, get drunk, get into fights, steal things, etc. And if you're dumb enough to brag about it on Twitter, you can't complain when it gets out that you participated in this. And you darn well should show up to help clean up your mess when you realize that you did something wrong. Your parents should be there, too, falling all over themselves to apologize and take responsibility. There should be groundings and tough conversations between those parents and teens.

But I also smell a rat here. It's partly about the money, and the massive media campaign that seems suspiciously self-serving to me, and the fact that I'm just not buying this man's character. There is an utter lack of transparency here about what all the donations will be used for. What is the "movement" we're paying for? The picnics and website? His speaking fees and travel fees to go on the news? It all feels opportunistic to me, and I'm surprised that the reporters who've interviewed him have not asked any of the tough questions-- like, what's the breakdown of expenses? What's already been donated and covered by insurance? Why are neighbors saying the house was already in disrepair and the damage is being exaggerated?

Brian says he's trying to raise $20,000 (I'd be surprised if he hasn't surpassed that already, considering the massive media campaign), and all I can think about is my local domestic violence center, which puts people on months-long waiting lists when they come in asking to join one of the counseling groups. Or the food pantries around here that run out of food before they run out of people needing it. Or the couple whose house is in foreclosure because their daughter has cancer and they can't keep up with the bills. There are so many people and charities that really need that $20,000. It makes me sad that they won't get it because this man is convincing us that we should pay for his scuffed floor. Or worse, that people are donating because they don't understand that he's not doing something charitable with the money. Even all these picnics are serving to keep his face in the media and raise his profile, which will keep donations rolling in and help him become more in-demand as a high-paid speaker and consultant. He's also calling for IT techs to fly out to meet him and develop an app for parents to monitor their kids' Twitter activity (which could also be called "Don't let your kids use Twitter unless you know their password and check in regularly").

It gives me no joy to post this, because I was among the many who was originally inspired by this man and his seemingly big-hearted gesture to help teens in trouble. I like believing that there are good people in this world who would be so forgiving and caring as to want to help people who've done them wrong. I wish I didn't have to see it any other way now.

So now I'm calling you out in the same way you called those kids out, Brian: This is your chance for redemption. Do the right thing with the money you've collected. Use it in the spirit in which it was given, and stop collecting more until you've outlined where it's going.


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Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The SimpliSafe Story

My recent move has been... well, eventful. It's been one of those experiences where you shout-sing Kelly Clarkson's "What doesn't kill you makes you STRONGER" as you're spackling and power-drilling and unclogging and fixing. One of the first things I wanted to take care of when I got here was an alarm system. I did my research and decided that SimpliSafe would be my best option: You own the system, no contracts, and it's simple to install yourself wirelessly. The company agreed to let me review the system for this blog. (Hey, thanks, guys.)

As soon as it arrived, I began setting up the sensors, then the keypad and alarm. Just an hour after I got it all set up, one of the sensors started to chirp.

Dang.

I walked over to it and couldn't figure out what was wrong. So I did what reasonable people do in these situations: I gave it a little smack. It stopped chirping. Solved!

I went back to work, but a minute later, the chirping started again. I adjusted the sensor, but couldn't see anything wrong with it. I smacked it again, and again it stopped.

You can see where this is going. I felt like I was living under a little black raincloud.

I didn't quite understand why the sensor would chirp at all-- there wasn't any speaker in it, as far as I knew. And yet every time I walked away, it started this loud chirp again, and every time I tapped it, it stopped. I was on hold with SimpliSafe's customer service line when I opened the door to look again, and guess what?

There was a cricket two inches away from the sensor, on top of the door frame.

Every time I smacked the sensor, it scared the cricket enough to shut it up, and then as soon as I walked away, it started in again.


Now, that would be a cheery end to my story if it were the end, but unfortunately, it is not. Two of the sensors (not that one) were not responding. It turned out that the metal doors they were on interfere with the magnets in the sensors, and I was able to reposition one of the sensors to fix the problem, but the other refused to be fixed. That led to my first real call to SimpliSafe's customer line. They told me how to solve the problem: put extra double-sided tape under the sensor so the metal door doesn't confuse the system. Cool.

But then the keypad announced that there was no link to the central monitoring dispatch. Which meant that the wireless connection... wasn't connecting. I called customer support again and they talked me through where to place the base-- they had a map of my area's wireless towers and knew which direction in my house would have the strongest signal. I placed it on a windowsill in the right direction and it worked immediately. Cool.

I had been worried about the wireless signal because as of today, their systems are all still through T-Mobile, which has iffy reception in my area. They have, however, signed a deal with Verizon so that areas like mine that have better Verizon reception will have connections through Verizon instead. (If you have a system already and it's not connecting well, they can send you a new Verizon base in about 5 weeks, according to the rep I spoke with. That was as of the beginning of September, so it sounds like they'll be ready in early October.) The website wasn't clear about this-- I thought the Verizon units were already shipping.

Then I installed the smoke alarm, and two days later, it began beeping to alert me to a low battery. Back to customer service, who said they'd send me a new battery. They did right away... but it was the wrong battery. So they're sending me a new one.

Cool?

Okay, so by this point I was a bit frustrated. Things hadn't gone as smoothly as I'd hoped, but the true test didn't happen until yesterday.

They give you the first few days to "practice" with the system without having it connected to dispatch. Practice... ha! What could be so hard about setting an alarm and then turning it off? I was smart. I didn't need to practice. I was, like, gifted with alarms. Until day 4.

I was half-asleep at the computer at 2 a.m., gave up on work, set the alarm, and went up to bed. That's when I realized I'd left my sheets in the dryer and hadn't made the bed yet. I had to go out to the garage to get my laundry. Which I did. Forgetting that there was a sensor on the door leading to my garage and that the alarm was activated. Thirty seconds later...

EEE, EEE, EEE, EEE, EEE, EEE, EEE, EEE, EEE, EEE, EEE, EEE, EEE, EEE!

HOLY TOMATOES.

I about started convulsing on the floor. I knew I had to get to the keypad and shut off the alarm, but the siren was right near there and it was like ear torture getting any closer to the speaker. But with the knowledge that my new neighbors were not going to be fond of me if I let this go on, I decided the decent thing to do would be to shut off this blaring alarm at 2 a.m. or at least have the courtesy to set myself on fire and run out on the lawn so it would look like there had been some purpose in this commotion. I chose the former, and the phone rang IMMEDIATELY.

It was the alarm company asking for my "safe word." I was still shaking when I picked up the phone and told her my safe word. Then I said, "I scared the poop out of myself!"

She said, "That's okay."

No, it wasn't okay. It was fantastic, because you know what? Had I been an actual intruder, NO WAY would I have stuck around for that.

So, yes, it took me a bit of messing around to get the system set up, but once I got it, it functioned just right. (And then I was so adrenalined up that I couldn't fall asleep, so I started assembling furniture at 3 a.m. By the time my pulse returned to normal, I had a new sewing cabinet set up.)

Then I got better news: I get a discount on my insurance for having monthly monitoring (burglar and fire). So if I choose to have monthly monitoring-- and I do, but you don't have to... you can just use the system as a deterrent and not have it connected to a central station-- I pay just $15 a month and there's no contract. And I get $60 a year off my insurance, which is like getting 4 months of monitoring free. So my real cost for a year of monitoring is $120. And with the system itself, you can choose from a variety of configurations; you decide how many entry sensors and motion detectors, whether you want things like a panic button, freeze sensor, extra siren, carbon monoxide detector, etc. So you can even start small and then add components later once you see if the system works for you. Check with your insurance company, though-- mine would give a discount only if I had a burglar AND fire alarm with central monitoring. The 10% discount that some insurances give will just about cover all of your monitoring costs.

It has some very cool features, like a "duress code"-- a code you can program that's not your real code, to alert dispatch that you're being forced to turn off your alarm against your will. And you can set temporary codes for people who might need access to your house (guests, workers), then erase those codes anytime. You can turn the system on and off via the keypad or the buttons on the keychain-- which also has a panic button that sounds the alarm if you're in or close to your house.

The other thing that's cool is that it's portable. If you move, you take it with you. 

Keeping in mind that it's a wireless system, you have to be in an area with good T-Mobile or Verizon coverage. But as long as you are, then I recommend this as a great option to save money and stay away from locking yourself into a contract where someone else owns the equipment.

You can learn more and buy a system at www.simplisafe.com or on Amazon.



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