Monday, August 29, 2011

Sending an Old Fashioned Telegram in Modern Times

[update] ATTENTION: is an extremely shady company.  Not only were they awful to work with (not returning calls, charging fees that were not published, charging per character to include the delivery address in the telegram message body without disclosing this charge up front, etc.), but I just received my credit card bill and found they charged the transaction as CASH, so I was charged additional “cash transaction” charges by my credit card company.  I can’t believe American Telegram can stay in business.  They are shady.  Their customer service is abysmal.  DO NOT USE AMERICANTELEGRAM.COM.

[update] I finally received some response from the company, by way of a “teen texting” style barrage of e-mails with absolutely no tact or sense of how to address customers in which they attempted to defend their actions.  For instance:

“If you could, please attach the screenshot to those you let know about your issues. [sic]   We have not changed our website in several years, meaning this information was presented to you when you checked out.   I am sorry you did not read it, but it was there, sir.”

Hilarious. p.s. The information to which this person is referring states clearly that the words in the destination address are included, not extra.  I assume this company’s “customer service” consists of a couple of people with absolutely no training except what they learned by arguing and pulling hair in grade school.

My dad is retiring, and we thought it would be clever to send him an old fashioned telegram on his last day at work.

Western Union used to be THE entity for telegram communication in the U.S., but they sent their last transmission on Friday, January 27, 2006.  Here’s a little history on Western Union’s telegram heyday.

So I began researching companies that still offered the service.  American Telegram seemed to be the most legitimate company still sending telegrams.   Following is my experience placing an order for a telegram:

First of all, I would highly recommend NOT using American Telegram.

American Telegram is pretty much a suck-fest.  I had a question about the telegram I wanted to send.  Their website site has a bunch of “call our operators!” banners everywhere, but no real answers to any of your practical questions (Do I pay for punctuation?  Do you use “stop” instead of a period, like a telegram should? etc.).  So I called, but got a message stating all operators were busy, and that I should leave my name and number and they would get back to me.  I did that, and after an hour of waiting with no response called again, as I needed to be sure my transmission was entered that day, for next day delivery.  I left my name and number again, but still received no response after another hour of waiting.

I probably should have taken this as a sign and abandoned American Telegram.  Instead, I decided to go ahead with the web form for sending a telegram.  The page clearly shows the next day service is $22.95 plus $.79 a word, and even if I was paying for the word “stop” (used at the end of a sentence), it should still have only been an extra $3.16 (four “stops”).  I typed in my 25 words (plus four “stops”), filled out the sender and recipient information, and entered my credit card number.  When I clicked “Process Telegram” I was taken to a sort of receipt page that stated my charge was for $22.95, plus 45 WORDS, plus tax (no mention of tax on the preceding page).  The bottom of the receipt showed:

Order Total:
Thank You! Your order will be processed very soon! Need to make a change to this order? We're happy to serve you. You may contact, or you may Call us at 1-800-835-3967 during normal business hours (PST timezone).

I immediately called the number on the receipt, received the same message I had previously heard, left my name and number AGAIN, and have since done that several more times… still with absolutely no response from American Telegram.

So… no confirmation page before taking your money.  No word counter on the form where you type your message.  No information on how punctuation and word count actually works.  No returned phone calls.  Mostly just a giant, suck-fest.

I paid $62.74 so you can learn from my mistake: DON’T USE AMERICAN TELEGRAM.

By the way, according to their phone message American Telegram evidently also runs Candygram, but their website makes NO mention of this service.  They DO, however, list a singing telegram service, but then inform you that it will be delivered by phone –so who cares?!  Anybody can call someone and sing to them.


Other telegram companies:

iTelegram (The International Telegram Service)

Telegram Stop

To be clear, Telegram Stop is more of a novelty service that is in no way legally binding or otherwise associated with most of the reasons one would send a telegram.  For $5.95 they will print and mail your message.  You also get a digital copy e-mailed to you.  There is no expedited delivery, and most messages will be delivered in 4 to 8 days.  You can’t deliver to any sort of live event, and you must give a street or P.O. Box for delivery.  Thus, the only real difference between Telegram Stop and sending a letter, is that you can choose their “styles” to print the message on.  In other words, Telegram Stop is pretty much a scam, charging you $5.95 to send a $.44 letter.

The Best Songs Ever Written

My life is filled with lists.  This one is not, like so many, to rule and dictate my actions, but instead to serve as a reminder.

Some day I might try and assign some sort of order to this list, but for now, these are just some of (what I feel are) the best songs ever written/recorded, in no particular order (I plan on continuing to add to the list over time):
  • “Just Like Heaven” by The Cure
  • “Ally” by Marie-Juliette Bird
  • “How It Ends” by Devotchka
  • “Hyper Ballad” by Bjork
  • Albinoni's Adagio In G Minor
  • "Days Go By" by Duncan Sheik
  • "Losing My Edge" by LCD Soundsystem

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Canon Elph 300HS Review

update: The shutter lag on this camera is infuriating.  Wanna take a picture of a baby or a dog (pretty much the only two things I photograph)?  TOO BAD!  By the time the camera actually snaps a shot, the subject will be in Timbuktu.  Wanna do it with the flash on?  Forget it!  I’ve had to wait up to three full seconds for the camera to actually fire.  Disappointed to say the least, which is a real bummer, ‘cause I thought I was going to love this camera.

I was hiking on some wet rocks and fell on my damn camera.  The screen is now a giant spider web.  I’ve had that Casio EX-V7 for more than five years, and I loved that camera (though I did have to send it in for repairs, luckily under warranty, not once but twice when I dropped it and it was bricked by the image stabilizer).  I especially loved the speed with which it could power up and shoot.  Also the speed with which it could simply shoot and re-ready itself for another shot.  There is no camera on the market that can match it.  I also loved the fact that it had an optical 9x zoom, with NOTHING PROTRUDING (the magic of mirrors, I assume).

I have to say, after a couple of weeks of online research and then “hands on” experiences trying out various cameras, I’m not too thrilled about the pocket-point-and-shoot offerings of Summer 2011.  At least not in the realm of power-up-shoot and/or shoot-and-shoot-again (which, let’s face it, is the most important factor in a pocket camera).

So though it doesn’t match the speed of my beloved Casio EX-V7, and though it has to pop-a-woody when powering up to shoot, I’ve chosen the Canon Elph 300HS as my new pocket shooter.

I ended up buying it from Best Buy, because I needed it that night for an Andrew Bird / Haley Bonar concert.  It sucked that I had to buy an SD Card at a retail store, but there was an 8GB class 10 card on sale for $20, so it wasn’t too outrageously overpriced (this to say: the camera does not come with any memory).

The still shots from the evening were surprising.  The actual photos from this camera do beat out my Casio by a long shot.  And I was amazed by the low-light shooting capabilities (both still and video).  The video isn’t on par with a dedicated video camera (some jitters and some trouble focusing), but it’s nice to have a full 24p HD option in my pocket when the situation arises.


  • Small size is incredible (the main reason I’ve chosen to keep the camera). It’s great that this is truly a pocket point-and-shoot.
  • The macro is awesome. I’ve been shooting things from only an inch away! I missed this capability with the Casio.
  • 1280p HD at 24ps (see cons as well)
  • I love the texture of the black model (matte, almost like fine sandpaper, and thus easier to hold on to)
  • I like being able to take a photo during movie recording (and being able to switch to movie with one, dedicated button while taking photos)
  • I like the external battery charger so two batteries can be utilized with one charging while out of the camera.  I can’t believe there are still cameras on the market that require in-camera battery charging.


  • I miss 9x non-protruding zoom from Casio Exilim EX-7.  The Elph only has 5x optical, and it requires the ridiculous extended lens.
  • There is no “audio only” recording option.  I’m a musician and I REALLY miss the “record audio only” option for recording song ideas and audio notes.  I also used this feature numerous times for recording conversations and people telling stories.  I’m really going to miss this feature.
  • 1080p HD at 24fps is awesome to have, but the camera seems to have trouble focusing (so far I have lots of out of focus HD video clips –unacceptable).  The video is often also jittery, even at 720p (vs. 1080p).
  • Not enough flash settings from the flash menu on the menu ring (Casio had red-eye, soft flash, regular, etc. where Canon only has auto-on and off –you can’t even force the flash on (for fill) unless you’re in Program mode!)
  • I wish there were shortcuts to the various “effect” shooting modes.  Having to scroll through a thousand settings before you take the picture means the moment has almost ALWAYS passed by the time you get the camera set up right.
  • Shutter lag… by the time the camera shoots, the subject has moved on to doing something else!

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Sending Larger Than 2GB Files

In an age where the terabyte rules, and I’m sure we’ll be moving into petabytes and exabytes any second now, it sure seems like a pain in the ass to get a 5GB file sent over the web.

YouSendIt is the reigning online file transfer company, but they have a 2GB single file limit.  DropBox is the favorite of Lifehacker and their ilk, but they also have a 2GB single file limit.  Even Microsoft has sky drive, and while they have a 5GB cloud capacity, they sport a COMICAL 50MB file size limit.  Most FTP options also have a 2GB file limit.

So what do you do when you need to send an 11GB file to someone on the other side of the country (or planet)?

This week I found two decent options.  One is to torrent the file (who knew it was for more than just stealing?!), and the other is through Skype.

There is a pretty decent tutorial here on how to create a torrent file using uTorrent (free program).  You simply create the torrent file (which is basically a sort of map for the recipient to find your computer and the specific file), and then send that torrent file to your recipient.  Your computer then feeds the file to the recipient (using a torrent program like uTorrent) over an internet connection.   I highly suggest using the forced encryption mentioned in the tutorial, especially if you are on Comcast.  The one thing the tutorial fails to mention is that you will absolutely need to set up port forwarding on your router (for the port you designate to work with uTorrent).  This is easy to do and a simple Google inquiry for port forwarding on your specific router should get you going.

The easiest way, however, to send a large file is to simply open up a Skype conversation with the recipient, and select “Conversation” from your menu options at the top of the screen, then “Send” then “File.”  Yesterday I sent an 11GB file.  It took around 11 hours over a Comcast connection.  Not exactly speed of light, but at least the file got there.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

If You are Eating Chocolate, You Are Probably Eating Lead

ChocoLeadTurns out most cheap, American chocolate contains lead.  Not only that, apparently it contains quite a bit.  During the production process, things like lead solder in the grinding machines falls into the chocolate, and thus you eat it when you consume chocolate.

Evidently Mexican chocolate, where production oversight and regulation is more lax, is even worse.  In addition to the lead in the wrappers, Mexican chocolate is most often made with tamarind and chili peppers which are often grown in lead-laden soils.  When the peppers are dried, the lead becomes even more concentrated.

Even low levels will: reduce IQ, cause learning disorders, stunted growth, impair hearing, and cause kidney damage. Lead exposure in childhood has also been linked to higher absenteeism in high school, lower class rank, poorer verbal skills, longer reaction time, and poor hand-eye coordination.  Also, the uptake of lead is increased when certain other metals are present. It was found that there was a higher absorption of lead when calcium was ingested at the same time.

The above is excerpted from:

Thus, if your kid is drinking his/her milk or taking their one-a-day vitamin like a good like tyke, they are likely upping the amount of lead that gets absorbed into their bloodstream.

Fact sheet from the West Coast Analytical Service website:

American Environmental Safety Institute
Fact Sheet – May 2002

On May 8, 2002, the American Environmental Safety Institute will petition the Director of the California Department of Health Services to ·  adopt regulations under the California Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Act to list any chocolate products containing more than 0.02 parts-per-million of lead as “environmental lead contamination,” and require the chocolate manufacturers who sell in California to pay the Act’s required fees to help fund the public education effort to fight lead poisoning; and find that any chocolate product containing more than 0.02 parts-per-million of lead is “adulterated” within the meaning of California Health & Safety Code §110545, California’s Food and Drug statute.

In concert with filing suit on the same day against the major chocolate companies under the consumer health protection provisions of California’s Proposition 65, the Institute will take these administrative petition actions based on the results of its recent research into the health effects of a wide variety of chocolate products in California. A well-respected analytical laboratory performed the Institute’s testing, and found that
significant amounts of the toxic metals lead and cadmium are present in virtually every chocolate product tested. The following facts demonstrate the extent of this lead in chocolate problem and its significant impact on children:

1. Significant levels of lead were found in a wide array of chocolate products (including syrup/toppings, milk chocolate products, dark chocolate products, and chocolate products that contain nuts, rice and other “inclusions”), with the levels ranging as high as 0.105 parts-per-million (“ppm”), 67 times as high as the lowest amount of 0.00157 ppm. These results show that the amount of lead in chocolate products varies dramatically. Clearly certain manufacturers have found ways to reduce the amount of dangerous lead in chocolate – why can’t the rest?

2. Americans eat an average of 12 pounds of chocolate per year. Chocolate is marketed intensely to children under the age of 12, those most susceptible to the dangers of lead and cadmium exposure, with chocolate candy sales growing more than 7% per year in the late 1990’s. Chocolate candy sales grew the most for afternoon favorites such as fun size and snack size bags of chocolate candies, which grew at a 12% per annum rate, according to the Chocolate Manufacturers’ Association.

3. The Institute’s research shows that daily lead exposure from many chocolate products violates the Proposition 65 “no significant risk” limit for lead of 0.5 micrograms per day. (California Health & Safety Code § 25249.6 and 22 California Code of Regulations §12805(a)).

4. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control considers lead poisoning the major environmental health threat to children in the United States, stating in 1991 that:
-Lead is ubiquitous in the human environment as a result of industrialization.
- It has no known physiologic value.
- Children are particularly susceptible to lead’s toxic effects.
- Lead poisoning, for the most part, is silent: most poisoned children have no symptoms. The vast majority of cases, therefore, go undiagnosed and untreated.

5. The impact of daily chocolate consumption on children is to increase dramatically, often by 100% or more, the amount of lead in the child’s diet. For example, a 5 year-old child consuming as little as the 1.44 micrograms in a typical snack pack of M&Ms consumes more lead than he or she would get in the entire daily diet of the average 5 year-old child in America today – this exposure also violates Proposition 65’s “no significant risk” limit for daily exposure to lead.

6. The increased lead in a child’s diet from eating candy increases the lead in the child’s blood system, which in turn adversely affects their neurological development, meaning lower IQ scores and the like. In 1999, the Centers for Disease Control reported that the average blood lead level for children ages 1 to 5 in America was 2.0 micrograms per deciliter (“ug/dl”) of blood; for children ages 6-11, the number was 1.3 ug/dl.3 The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has
determined that for every microgram of lead that a child consumes, their blood lead level is increased by 0.16 ug/dl,4 and that a sustained 1 μg/dL increase in blood-lead concentration results in a loss of 0.257 IQ points in an average child.

7. Based on the blood lead level data developed by the Centers for Disease Control and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the consumption of just one of these typical M&M chocolate snacks results in an 18% increase in an average 6 year old child’s blood lead level.

8. The consumption of a typical Kraft Chocolate Fudge Pudding (2.7 micrograms of lead) results in a 33% increase in an average 6 year old child’s blood lead level.

9. The consumption of a typical Nestlé’s Double Chocolate Meltdown Cocoa Drink (3.67 micrograms of lead) results in a 45% increase in an average 6 year old child’s blood lead level.

10. The consumption of a Rocky Mountain Chocolate Easter Bunny (4.93 micrograms) results in a 61% increase in an average 6-year-old child’s blood lead level.

The Institute – and, more importantly, California’s consumers and its young people – needs your help. Please contact the Director of the California Department of Health Services and indicate your support for the Institute’s petition to call on the chocolate industry to get the lead out of chocolate. You can reach the Director as follows:
Diana M. Bontá, R.N., Dr.P.H
California Department of Health Services
714/744 P Street
Sacramento, California 94234-7320
Our basic slogan says it all: “They Can, So They Should – Get the Lead Out!”

For even more scary, check out Lead Contamination in Cocoa and Cocoa Products: Isotopic Evidence of Global Contamination on the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences website. 

Good thing I’m not that big a fan of chocolate.  Viva la savory!