Amtrak – Pacific Surfliner and Coast Starlight

The Amtrak train journey along California’s coast is one of the world’s most scenic rail travel experiences. It was over ten years ago that we did exactly the same trip, so it was interesting to look back and compare notes. On the last occasion, we traveled economy class but this time, business class was well worth the modest price difference.

We traveled from San Diego via Santa Barbara to San Jose, then onward to San Francisco via Caltrain. Breaking the journey in Santa Barbara was nice because that created two fairly equal legs for the whole journey. It meant we could leave San Diego comfortably around lunchtime with the Pacific Surfliner, then leave Santa Barbara similarly at lunchtime with the Coast Starlight the next day or whenever we’re ready.

On our previous economy class trip, we didn’t notice any real differences between the trains. Also, at that time, the route was not impacted by the damaged section of the track, which was currently under repair and required a shuttle bus service between Oceanside and Irvine. On this trip, however, there were notable differences, in business class, between the two trains. It’s impossible to outline all the small details of each train journey because, according to my information, things are always changing on Amtrak. So I will just focus on the things which I noticed and the facilities which I made use of. The most spectacular part of the whole journey is where the tracks are close to the ocean, which occurs at several points on the trip. Since we traveled during the daytime and not overnight, we did not use the sleeper car service.

The Pacific Surfliner travels from San Diego to San Luis Obispo multiple times per day. In addition to the Amtrak website, this train has its own separate Pacific Surfliner website with extra information. Boarding in San Diego, twenty minutes before departure, was orderly, with preference given to Business Class passengers. Business Class has guaranteed seating but no specific seat reservation so it was first-come, first-served, but there were two business coaches and since most people opted for the first coach, there was ample space in the second. My first pleasant surprise was discovering a refreshment stand at the end of our coach which provided fresh coffee, other liquids and pastries. Once the train was in motion, there were several smiling attendants offering a selection of other drinks, including wine. Later on, a lunch box was served, similar to what one would expect on a short-haul flight. Further refreshments were available for purchase from the onboard Market Cafe. The attendants were constantly in action, dealing with any issues or requests from the passengers. The seats in business class were more spacious than in economy and also there was free wifi onboard, which was a definite asset. The only minor irritation on this trip was the (fortunately) temporary shuttle bus service from Oceanside to Irvine. It was unnerving because the bus driver and another passenger were playing their own competing brands of loud music. After the short bus journey, it was nice to be back onboard the train again. In Los Angeles, a stub-end station, the train reverses direction so passengers end up facing the opposite way. It’s useful to know that in advance if wanting to be on a particular side of the train. Currently, a massive project is underway to construct a pass-through rail line for some time in the future. Overall, I have to say the service from the staff was first class and made for a very pleasant journey, so this trip was a wonderfully comfortable and enjoyable experience.

The Coast Starlight commences its journey in Los Angeles and travels all the way to Seattle. On this occasion, the train was completely full because of all the weather-induced airline cancellations. Surprisingly, this was not very noticeable due to the well-organized attendants who had everything under control. The attendant allocates seats to every newly boarding passenger and it’s important to follow their instructions. An unwritten rule onboard Amtrak is that you don’t argue with your attendant because it’s a discussion you will not win. When we arrived at our seats they were occupied by a single person who was not intending to move. One word with the attendant was all it needed to quickly remedy the situation and we were seated comfortably for the remainder of our trip. At this point, we began to notice some differences from the preceding leg of our train journey. Firstly, on the Coast Starlight, there is no wifi available. They say one should look out of the window and enjoy the scenery instead. This makes sense because the scenery along the California coastline is indeed spectacular. The free refreshments consisted of one bottle of water. Anything else needed to be purchased from the snack bar in the adjoining coach. The modest array of snacks could be selected from a series of refrigerated display cupboards and handed to the attendant for re-heating. The coffee was disappointing but I later noticed one person obtaining coffee from the dining car which would probably have been a better option. An alternative to snacking was offered by the dining car adjacent to the business coach. Reservations for the various dinner seatings were organized by the attendants. We didn’t visit the dining car during this trip but a sample menu and dining description can be found on the Amtrak website. A major positive was the strict order onboard this train. There were regular announcements that people should not cause noise disturbance and should use headphones at all times for their electronic equipment. The peace and quiet was very noticeable, especially considering the full occupancy of the train. This particular advisory contributed significantly towards a very pleasant train journey indeed.

One recurring theme on Amtrak is the issue of time-keeping. Both our trains departed exactly on time and were punctual until the latter stages of the trip. There was no apparent reason for this but both trains arrived late at their destinations, the Coast Starlight being significantly later than the Pacific Surfliner. I have to say that the staff on both trains were exemplary and it was amazing to see how well they handled such a demanding job. I much prefer train travel to flying and when there is no urgency, then traveling by train along the California coast is the most comfortable option. It’s also the best way to travel during holiday periods when the roads are so congested. I can highly recommend this scenic train journey.

In this comic, Shoedrop is taking a business trip – or not!

The Real Problem with Virtual Assistants

Neatstep parking comic - the virtual customer service assistant

I’ve always felt that the modern world relies too much on technology. This belief stems from my early involvement in the world of computers. In fact, I once wrote a book on that subject but never had the time or inclination to publish it.

Before the internet, most services were conducted by mail, telephone, or in-person contact with real persons. When people refer to “the good old days” there are understandable reasons for that. Fast forward and life has radically changed. Nowadays, getting to talk with a real person is like hitting the lottery jackpot. Even better is encountering a real person located in your own country.

Nowadays, real people have been replaced by virtual assistants that have become extremely popular and widespread just like a virus. You can ask a virtual assistant anything you like, whether online or by telephone and you will likely receive one of the standard responses. You will either get referred back to the website from where you have just come, or you will be referred to a telephone number where you can enjoy the same web of confusion. At the end of the day, a virtual assistant will probably not reveal anything you don’t already know but it will likely increase your level of frustration.

It seems to me there are two major reasons for the introduction of virtual assistants – a shortage of staff and a desire for greater efficiency. Customer satisfaction does not appear to factor into this equation. For my part, I consider it to be a game of “us” versus “them”. The object of the game is to trick the system into giving you the information you need. As a long-time computer specialist, I manage pretty well but I feel sorry for most people who don’t have the time or the patience to outlast the system. Like it or not, we are now living in a virtual world. Welcome to the future!

In this comic, Neatstep tries unsuccessfully to navigate the fully automated help center.

To Blog or Not to Blog

Neatstep parking comic - the daily blog

As William Shakespeare famously once said, “To blog or not to blog, that is the question”. At least, I’m sure that’s what he would have said if he were alive today, which he isn’t, of course, unless you believe in conspiracy theories. Little old Willie was a good writer, though the experts agree that his works were not actually written by him but by someone else, although they can’t agree on who that was.

Fortunately, I know for sure that the Neatstep Blog was written exclusively by me and it has three themes:
(1) dubious travel reports (2) questionable tips and tricks (3) true stories that inspired my comics.

The thing about writing, in general, is that most people don’t have time for reading these days, so that’s why it’s important to keep it short. If you’re writing an email then you had better get your whole message in the first sentence, otherwise, it’s likely no one will read it!

If you’re writing a blog it’s more challenging. Lots of pictures can help, which is why I decided to add a comic to each blog. If nobody reads the blog then perhaps they will, at least, digest the colorful panels at the top of the page.

In this comic, Neatstep goes, once more, head to head with the Boss’s Son. If you’ve read this far then don’t worry because you’ve reached the end!

How to clean old Silverware

Neatstep parking comic - cleaner than clean

After languishing in storage for many years our old EPNS silverware (cutlery/flatware/tableware or whatever it’s called) was completely tarnished. I tried all the suggested online methods but as usual, nothing worked properly. So, in desperation, I reached for a bottle of Glass Cooktop Cleaner (used for electric range cooktops). This proved so effective that I decided to document it.

Applying the cleaner to a cloth and wiping each item was like watching one of those TV commercials where everything works like magic. Of course, this meant cleaning each piece separately but on the positive side, it was quick, easy and the result was impressive. Rinsing the items afterwards in hot water prevented the next home-cooked meal from tasting a little weird.

Why didn’t I use metal polish? That’s because I always have cooktop cleaner at home and it’s less messy. In fact, this worked so well that I might just try it on my car wheel rims, which is also something I have trouble cleaning. Who knows – the possibilities are endless!

Now for the disclaimer: If anyone else wants to try this, they should test it first on an unimportant piece to convince themself before proceeding.

In the comic above, Neatstep is skeptical of heavily advertised products but the Boss can’t resist blindly following a fashionable trend.

The Curse Of Shrinkflation

Neatstep parking comic - the inflation basket

The more things change, the more they stay the same. I authored this comic way back in 2009 and many years later it seems more relevant than ever. There are normally three ways of addressing inflation; the first is to say it’s only temporary; the second is to adjust the measurement of it; the third is by means of shrinkflation. In this comic, the Boss explains inflation to Neatstep. Below, I discuss the curse of shrinkflation!

To begin with, who would have guessed that we have inflation? The experts apparently didn’t or pretended they didn’t! Of course, idiots like me notice little things like that. What’s more noticeable and what is more annoying than pesky “inflation” is sneaky “shrinkflation”. That’s when you buy a large container of something only to discover the contents are half the previous amount.

Some kinds of “shrinkflation” are immediately obvious and some are not. The silliest example I experienced was when I bought a packet of metal screws that used to contain 12 and now only contained 11. I won’t comment further on the implications of that. Then, of course, there are the bars of chocolate which get smaller and thinner over time. More recently, my favorite packet of cookies, which was designed for 10 cookies in each row, now contained only 7. That is shrinkflation with a vengeance!

So how does one combat the curse of shrinkflation? On the positive side, there are some benefits. One tends to eat fewer cookies and less chocolate, which is probably a good thing. It’s also an opportunity to try other products – ones which are hopefully larger and less expensive. Instead of buyer’s remorse, that is the ultimate buyer’s revenge!

Meanwhile, I hope nobody has noticed that this blog is getting smaller!

How Not To Lose Weight

Neatstep parking comic - the weight loss diet

In the recent pandemic, a lot of strange things happened. During this time I suddenly lost 15 pounds, which was impressive considering it was unplanned and quite unnecessary.

After the initial shock, I eventually figured out the reason for this weight loss. Whilst browsing for cereals in the local supermarket I had discovered a giant packet of puffed wheat. This product was on special offer and of course, nobody can resist a good deal! I thought it would be fun to try something different for a change. Indeed, it tasted so good that it soon replaced my usual breakfast every single morning. Apparently, that was too much of a good thing – or perhaps too little of a good thing!

Reverting to a more varied breakfast restored some of the missing weight. They say that what doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger but somehow I’m glad I didn’t test that theory to the fullest!

In the above comic, the Boss is always willing to try a new weight-loss scheme. Unfortunately, he’s not so keen to properly interpret the guidelines.

The new Neatstep website

Neatstep parking comic - booting the computer

I knew it would happen one day and sure enough, it did. Whilst I was away on vacation my website stopped working…

Why did it stop working? Because the web server was upgraded and therefore it would not function with my old software (which was working very nicely!). It’s like when you buy a new coffeemaker and it won’t work with your old coffee jugs (which is also annoying!).

Why did it really stop working? For all you techies out there, it’s because I was running an old Drupal version using old PHP (which I was very happy with). However, I’m still recovering from the last time I upgraded Drupal so in future, I will be using WordPress (for good or for bad!).

All I really wanted to do was display some comics but Murphy’s Law says “before you can do something, you must always do something else”. This being true, I embarked reluctantly on a quest to rebuild my whole website as quickly as possible, cutting the usual corners. It didn’t take too long, all things considered, so now that it’s finished I can go on vacation once more and… await the next upgrade!

A Cruise Guide for Beginners

Neatstep parking comic - the free cruise deal

Every cruise is a new experience and our recent one was no exception. On the first day, before sailing, there is always a lifeboat drill – just in case! The whistle sounds and the instructions are, “Please go to your cabins, collect your life vest, DO NOT put it on, grab a toolkit, then proceed to your assembly station!” It’s amazing how such precise instructions can quickly result in complete and utter chaos, but that’s a story for later. Personally, I was okay with the life vest instructions but I did wonder about the toolkit!

Meanwhile, on our second cruise day the ship’s whistle sounded the alarm so loudly that I nearly fell off my chair and some elderly folk had to adjust their hearing aids. “This is an emergency drill for crew only. Please DO NOT go to your cabin and get your life vest.” Needless to say, enough people missed the vital words “DO NOT”! We were actually in our cabin at the time and about to leave, but since our lifeboat was directly outside the window I thought it would be instructive to watch it being deployed. After all, it would only take a few minutes… or so I thought.

The whole process was most enlightening. I now know exactly how many crew members it takes to launch one lifeboat and why a toolkit might be needed. One person on the left winds the winch whilst another stands on the right. Then there’s the important looking guy wandering around with an intercom and the even more important guy offstage who is summoned when something goes wrong – which of course, it did! The winch got stuck and the lifeboat became crooked. More manoeuvring made it even more crooked. Then there was lots of telephoning, shouting, shrugging, gesticulating – just like in an Italian restaurant. Well, after all, it was an Italian ship! Time is of the essence when the ship is going down. In this case fortunately it was only the lifeboat – going down the side of the ship. I believe it was the hammer which finally unlocked the winch and with a sudden lurch the lifeboat began its descent – after a really long time. I took a photo through the window, which didn’t impress the crew members. Subsequently, I felt it was prudent not to hang around and observe the reverse process.

One highlight of cruising is the wide choice of dining options. On this ship we decided to first visit the main cafeteria. It was very busy, lots of people milling around but not many waiters in sight. I saw one waiter in the distance so I waved to him and he waved back as he disappeared. (The staff are always so friendly on these cruise ships). Finally I spotted one staff member standing in the corner, so I approached him and asked, “Can you serve us?” to which he replied, “No I can’t! I’m new here. They said they were too busy for me, so I should just go to the restaurant and wait!”

It’s well known that crew members on board a cruise ship work very hard and some of them even have multiple jobs. You might recognise your server in various outfits at different locations. You may even see him/her on stage sometimes in a particular feature show. Crew members are very versatile indeed, which leads me to the next episode.

If you’re a lucky passenger you will get invited to the captain’s champagne reception. Nobody is quite sure what the selection criteria are but we received an invitation which we gratefully accepted. At the reception there was a food buffet but once again no waiters anywhere, only self-service. I said to the captain, “This is a nice ship” and he said, “Thank you. Welcome onboard – do you have any questions or concerns?” I said, “Well there is one thing which bothers me. While you’re here meeting with us, who is steering the ship?” He replied, “Why do you think this buffet is self-service?”

After the first two days I felt really comfortable aboard our ship – especially when we were in port! For me it’s a bit like flying – I always feel most comfortable when I’m at the airport. Still, there is never a shortage of things to see or do and it’s hard to get bored so if you’ve never tried cruising before it’s something to consider. We recommended cruising to some friends of ours and if I ever see them again I will ask them how they are enjoying it. If you’re curious and want more detailed information about cruising then “Cruise Critic” is one example of the many online sources available. I mention this website only because I have nothing whatsoever to do with it, but it works for me. Happy cruising! This blog comes to you from a lifeboat somewhere in the Caribbean!

Keep Calm and Carry-On – if you can!

Neatstep parking comic - the mystery trip

Every time we depart from our local airport it’s a fiasco going through security with our carry-on baggage. I thought I would be able to stop writing about this long ago, but the saga just continues with every trip. The question is, “how can you keep calm if you have carry-on?”

We knew already, before we entered security, there would be problems and sure enough, we weren’t disappointed. I dumped everything possible in the little tray but the detector still beeped persistently. Then came the good news. “You’ve been randomly selected for an additional security check.” “Oh, no! Not me!” “Would you like the full-body scan or the pat-down?” “I have no idea. What works best?” “We’ll do a pat-down. Just strip in front of all these people and leave it to me!”…..

Okay, I’m exaggerating now, but not much! The guy went to work with his hands and his baton. Beep, beep, beep! Something wasn’t right. Apparently I had a metallic knee, a metallic elbow and a metallic shoulder. If that was true, I would be worth a fortune to a scrap metal dealer. Every beep was accompanied by a pat-down and I was wondering – or should I say worrying – where it was going to beep next! I was saved at the bell only because the queue of inquisitive people was backing up too far.Then I went to join my wife who was having her own discussions. “What’s the little white object showing up on the screen?” “It’s the remainder of our bottle-opener set. You confiscated the mini-knife, last time!” “Well, what’s the little black object then?” “It’s our manicure set. You allowed it through, last time!” “I’ll have to discuss this with the supervisor!” “You did that too, last time!” “Keep calm!” “Carry on!”

We finally exited from security and relaxed with a coffee, but not for long. “Would Mr. & Mrs. U-No-Who please report to the airline desk immediately!” “OMG”, I was thinking. “We must be overbooked!” I gulped down my coffee, nearly spilling it all over myself and we headed to the airline desk. The lady scrutinized our boarding cards and declared, “I’m only interested in you!” “Who? Surely, not me again! Is there a target on my back or something?” “You’ve been randomly selected for an additional security check!” “I’ve just had one!” “Not according to the computer!” “How do you know?” “Because, there’s a little circle and no stamp on your boarding card!” came the triumphant response. “You’ll have to come with me back to security!” “Oh! No!” “Oh, Yes!”

We returned to security, where a list of names was checked, which should have included mine but of course, didn’t! Apparently, the guy was so engrossed in his bleeping pat-down that he neglected to put my name on the list or a stamp on my boarding card. Maybe he was hoping I would come round again, but fortunately, this time, everyone was too busy and nobody wanted to inspect me at all. There were various discussions and eventually they decided to improvise. One person did the finger powder check, just for a change, while another person attempted a pat-down but gave up in the end and added my name to the list with a sigh of relief which I echoed.

We made it to the US flight with our carry-on. The return Canadian flight insisted we check-in the carry-on! Did somebody once say, “Keep calm and carry on!” All I know, is if my experience is any indication, there’s only one conclusion to be drawn. It’s not possible to keep calm, if you have carry-on!

Europe: Going… Going… Gone!

Neatstep parking comic - the exotic holiday trip

We recently decided on a last-minute trip to Europe. There was a pretty good flight deal which made the decision easy. On departure, all was well until take-off. The engines were fired-up, the plane lurched forward for a while and then we suddenly slowed down and taxied comfortably back towards the terminal building. Then the pilot announced, “Sorry about that. We had a minor technical issue, but we’ve fixed it now, so we’re going around to have another try!” I was curious. What kind of technical issue can be fixed while you’re coasting along and anyhow, what does he mean, “have another try?”…..

So it was, that we went around again and joined the back of a very long queue. Well – I thought, at least that would give them plenty of time to re-check the “minor technical issue” before we “have another try!” This time we were successful – fortunately! Once we were airborne I was pleased to see just how many flight attendants were on-board. It looked like we were going to get some really bonanza service. There were dozens of uniformed staff whizzing up and down the aisles, following instructions from more senior-looking colleagues. Whilst it was entertaining observing all this, I was getting slowly hungry and I was glad that I’d brought a reserve sandwich with me because it was about 2-3 hours later that the in-flight meal was finally served. Then it dawned on me that this must be a training flight and the extra crew were the trainees.

The flight was certainly different from our last European trip with another airline where we were treated to a lesson in German efficiency. At that time, it was takeoff, food-up, then lights-out… everybody go to sleepy until… lights-on, wakey-wakey, music, breakfast and off-you-go – aufwiedersehen! This time it was more like, “Where’s the light-switch? I don’t know – I’m new here and I don’t sleep well on-duty!” “Where’s the food? I thought you were getting it!” Where’s the breakfast? No time for that, we’re already landing! Okay, perhaps I’m exaggerating – we did get to eat breakfast, but the lights definitely weren’t out for very long!

Of course, there’s always an upside to everything. The plane had lots of leg-room and the flight itself was very smooth. Then we arrived in Europe where much has changed over the years, since I left. It’s still crowded, but even more so now. This was especially noticeable on the German autobahn where we had the pleasure of witnessing hundreds of kilometers of tail-to-tail trucks, all shuffling goods backwards and forwards in line with the EU (European Union) master plan! Too bad if you want to actually get anywhere these days because there’s not much space left for anyone else on the highways. Of course, you can always spend your vacation at one of those nice autobahn rest areas – which you may well have to, if you get really stuck!

In the UK it wasn’t much different – lots of traffic and lots of people doing lots of traveling. One thing hasn’t changed there, though – people are still trying to decide whether they are part of Europe, or not! Everywhere we went there were little plaques on various structures, which read, “This project was financed by the European Union”! Hmmmnn! No wonder they don’t have any money left!

Several years ago whilst I was residing in Europe, there was a travel agent advertising on billboards all over the city. The posters read, “See America While It Lasts!” At the time, I thought that was pretty funny and a rather neat way of attracting customers. Having lived in North America now for quite a while, I’m wondering if we’ll soon be seeing our own billboards with the caption, “See Europe While It Lasts!”