Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Indirect TV

(or, why in hell is it so fargin complicated to watch TV?)

There are some companies that I swear are full of corksucking bastages. I used to think that our local cable company was the epitome of that kind of organization, but I've recently come to see DirecTV as the new contender.

So here's the story: I have a TiVo that's specially designed for DirecTV service (it won't work on any other TV service). I got this device purposely -- it has all the cool features and user interface of a TiVo, but has two satellite receivers built-in so that it can be recording two programs at once while I'm watching a third previously recorded one. TiVos are also great because they run Linux internally and they're really reliable. Reliable, that is, until DirecTV got their hands on it.

At the beginning of October DirecTV automatically "upgraded" the software on my TiVo. Since the software upgrade my TiVo has been rebooting by itself every day or so - usually while I'm trying to watch something. This is the second time that DirecTV has pushed out a bad software update that has caused the unit to be so unstable as to make watching TV more of a chore than relaxing.

I called DirecTV asking them to please put back the old software version. I explained why. I did it with enough technical terminology so that they would understand that they weren't dealing with the usual customer who forgot to plug their system into the wall outlet. DirecTV's answer: My TiVo is plugged into a wall outlet that isn't working properly, and to plug it into another outlet. I explained that this wasn't the problem, but I would try it anyhow (not really, because I knew this was NOT the problem). I also added that my family was about to visit, and that if the system started failing while they were here that the next call they had from me would be to cancel my service. The id10t on the other end of the line insisted that it had to be something in my electrical service because nobody else was having such a problem. That was a total lie, because on DirecTV's own tech support forums (and other forums) there are a whole lot of people complaining about the same problem (it seems to be affecting only certain certain revision units).

So while my parents were here, the piece of shit rebooted at least twice while we were watching live TV and we missed the end of the programs.

I spent 8 hours (yes, 8) pulling apart the unit, backing-up the hard disk, and tried to get the old software version running again (it is stored on an alternate partition on the disk). Whatever was done by the new software didn't let the old software run anymore, so that was a waste of time. I did find a log file on the disk though that confirmed what I already knew: That there was a bug in the software that was causing the reboots.

So I called DirecTV again, this time as the irate customer I should have been the first time. They now admitted there was a problem, but the best they could do is replace the TiVo with one of their new DVRs (that are not TiVos). This is bad for two reasons: One is that I lose all the programming I have on the disk, the other is that their new DVRs are crappy and don't work at all like the TiVo. To make a long story short, they won't put the old software version back, they have no idea why the problem is happening, they have no idea how long it will take to fix it, and the best they could do to compensate me for my inconvenience (and embarrassment with my parents) was a $5/month discount for 3 months.

So for the first time in over 3 years, I am now thinking about going back to the cable company that so disappointed me enough to install a satellite dish on the roof of my house (knowing full well that this is now a matter of picking the lesser of two evils).

It should not be so difficult to watch TV. Is this what we've come to? It's bad enough that all the programs have that annoying crap that pops-up on the bottom or side of the screen in the middle of the show you're watching. I was thinking about getting a HDTV. Why? I don't know. So I can watch poor programming from an unreliable cable or satellite provider in high definition?

If I got rid of the cable/satellite TV I would miss things like South Park, Stargate Atlantis, and random cool stuff that I sometimes stumble on when I'm bored (thanks Tristin for that insight). It's the crack cocaine of the entertainment world.

I am so, so tired of bad service. When will it end? Do I get rid of pay-TV and try to kick the TV habit cold turkey? Do I get cable to send a message to DirecTV that they probably will never get? Do I stay with DirecTV in the hopes that they fix the problem eventually? Should I get a HDTV so I can watch whatever TV I happen to have more clearly and bigger? I just don't know anymore...

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Home Ownership and Stinky Stuff

Whoever coined the phrase "the joys of home ownership" either never owned a home or has a sick sense of humor.

My parents are down to visit for a week, which is usually a good thing (I don't see them often). Today during a walk around the yard, my father and I just happened to look at the water meter and noticed the meter moving with no water being used. After some water-diagnostics we discovered a break in my water service. Same place as in my former house in Sugar Land -- a brass-to-PVC plastic fitting broke where it threads into the brass fitting. The good news: We've dug a hole and it's obvious where it is. The bad news: It isn't something that's going to be easily fixed (at least not without numerous trips to Home Depot and lots of digging). So until the professionals can get here in the morning, the water is off except for absolute necessities.

Don't let anyone fool you: New(er) houses are not problem-free houses. My house is 11 years old. I'm just about to spend a bunch to have a lot of rotten trim replaced. The yard has cost mucho dinero to maintain. The air conditioner has already had expensive repairs, and the water heater is about to take a one-way trip to water heater heaven. I won't even mention the unmentionable electrical wiring in this house (thankfully that I could fix myself). This blasted house cost me more than the older house I owned. The only joy in home ownership that I have is my next door neighbor (her name is Joy).

It seems that there's another group of people trying to "fix" a different kind of problem: Specifically, replacing the nice lack of smell in fresh air with the stinky smell of perfumes. My parents use fabric softener on their clothes - the perfume smell in there is strong enough to make my throat sore. The smell never goes away. This is supposed to make the clothes smell "fresh." News flash: No, it doesn't. It smells like a bottle of cheap perfume was dumped into a pile of clothes (and this isn't far from the truth). I have a bottle of Lysol Bathroom Cleaner - "Island Breeze" scent. I don't know where this "island" is, but no island I've ever visited ever smelled like this and never for so long (like upwards of a week). Maybe they're talking about outside a cheap perfume factory on Staten Island or something? The biggest liars are the people who make Fabreze. They claim it doesn't cover odors, but rather it eliminates them. Oh, really? This shit is just another product loaded with perfumes that not only leaves a perfume-loaded residue on the furniture, but transfers to people's clothes as well. Good god people, do you need perfume in EVERYTHING? What ever happened to the lack of smell of stuff? If you have a sensitive schnoz and these perfumes cause your throat to close-up, what do you do? It's hard to find any cleaning or personal care product without some kind of perfume odor. Even frigging garbage bags are scented now. I'd rather smell cat feces than perfume. Give me back my fresh air.

So I guess this posting truly stinks today. Thank goodness that no perfumes were used in its production.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Personal Honey

Question of the day: What is the sound of one banjo dueling?

It's Sunday night (October 14, to be exact) at the Austin No Kidding monthly supper at Threadgill's. A discussion about how great the biscuits taste with honey takes place. I finally notice someone at the table has a container of honey. She comments, "This is my personal honey." I respond, "I'm still looking for my personal honey." So another person at the table takes the other container of honey from the table and writes my name on it and puts it in front of me. While my comment was humorous, and the response equally humorous, it does give me pause wondering if my point were communicated sufficiently. Is a container of honey the best life can give me as a soulmate? Do my fellow no-kidders feel that I am only worthy of romancing a container of honey? Are my comments too sharp in that they sting like a bee? Stay tuned for the answer to these and other silly questions.

I saw the movie "The Tao of Steve" the other night on IFC for the second time. I can't say I really like this movie a lot, but the music is good and it's an oddly funny romantic comedy. The Tao of Steve is actually the main character's rules for seducing a woman, specifically:
  1. Be without desire ("Keep your heart at bay...")
  2. Do something excellent ("Be excellent in front of her...")
  3. Be gone ("And then you pull away...")
The premise being that women don't want a guy who is too easy to get - they want a challenge. I find this whole thing rather funny as long as it is fiction. Definitely not the best way to find a personal honey.

I'm battling ants (ants suck) in my master bathroom right now. The way to get rid of ants is to present them with food tainted with ant poison, which they take back to their nest, feed to their nestmates, and they die of poisoning. I've been thinking: What if the Earth and humanity are just a disease or common pest at a microscopic level as part of some larger being? What if bacteria and viruses are simply the ant poison of this larger being who is trying to get rid of us? If so, I'm sure we really piss off that being because we're quite difficult to get rid of... Anyhow, just some deep thought about our place in the universe. By the way, I thought of this way before I ever saw Animal House. Coincidentally, The History Channel just showed a program about a scientist who theorizes that plagues (such as the H5N1 influenza virus) actually originate from outer space and are brought here by comets breaking-up in our upper atmosphere. Interestingly scary this all is.

I'm sorry for the morbid writings tonight. Since becoming aware of the eye problems (see earlier post) and generally feeling blah, I just don't have much upbeat stuff to say. "Sleep tight Mr. Serious. Maybe you'll feel better tomorrow."

Friday, October 12, 2007

Finished phone conversion

Major milestone achieved this evening: I completed the conversion of the last of 813 telephones to the new phone system at work. This marks the culmination of over three years of hard work (about a year and a half of development, and another year and a half of implementation and the conversion).

I celebrated with a container of Starbucks Java Chip ice cream. Mmmmm...

While I was writing this, Tori Amos performed on the Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson (I had it on in the background). I like some of the stuff she does, but never really got into most of her songs. When I do see her perform though, I just can't believe how amazing she is at the piano. Just a side note.

What you can't see can make you not see. See?

Well, time to break the promise that this wasn't going to be your usual "blog." Sorry. Oh, and if you're as squeamish at medical stuff with the eyes as I am, then you may want to skip the next paragraph.

I came back from the eye doctor today. One of the two reasons I went was because I started periodically seeing things going through my vision that looks like stuff you'd see under a microscope. My eye doctor calls these things "floaters" and says it's debris (old cells and stuff) floating around in the fluid of the eye. This, they say, is something that seems to come with age (thanks a bunch father time). Among reasons for this to happen is when the wall of the retina gets compromised and in my case this is what's happening. I have a tiny hole in my retina, and today I found it is getting worse. I now need to see a doctor who's specialty is the inside of the eye, and may end up having the inside of my eye shot with lasers (to seal the hole before my entire retina detaches from the inside of my eye). I'm not really good about people messing with my eyes, including me (notice I don't wear contact lenses...). So needless to say that there are feelings of fear, terror, and impending doom going through my head. Retinal detachment (what can happen without treatment) is also not fun, unless your idea of fun includes going blind. I really enjoy seeing (no pun intended) my eye doctor (Dr. Laura Beck) because she's cute and she's an excellent eye doctor. I could really do without this kind of bad news though!

On a positive note, however, Dr. Beck knew just what was wrong with the new glasses I have been so frustrated with, and the opticians there were able to adjust the lenses so I could actually see correctly with them. The lenses were actually rotated slightly on their axes in the frame, and they were able to turn the lenses slightly so everything worked right. Seems this is a problem when you have an astigmatism.

Get your eyes checked regularly. Add that to the list of things that are important.

So with this said, I probably need to add that as I get older it feels like everything in my body is breaking. My short-term memory is going all to hell (people say this probably due to stress, but I don't know) - I remember watching certain TV shows but when someone wants to talk about them I can't remember squat about the details right away. My right leg hurts when I sit for a while. For whatever reason, I kept banging my right elbow into corners of stuff (tables, walls) and now my right arm hurts when I try to lift stuff. Anyhow, suffice to say that I'm still alive and kicking, but there are days when I wonder what the next half of my life will bring...

Monday, October 8, 2007

A few of my favorite things

Like many people who use this kind of communication forum, I've discovered that I'm writing more about what's irking me than what I enjoy. That's to be expected I guess, but I'm sure my two or three readers out there would like to hear something positive for a change. So with that in mind, here are some things that make me happy.

If it weren't obvious already, given the great cassette tape archival project mentioned earlier, I spend a great deal of time listening to music. My tastes are eclectic and rather unusual for a nerdy guy like me. I really don't like anything that sounds like it came out of a computer or on dead space on the shortwave band. Yes, folks, at least one techie that isn't into techno or related genres. Some people would say I'm kind of stuck in the early 60s, but I also like ragtime and solo piano, we've already established my admiration of The Partridge Family, and I even have The Union Underground's "...an education in rebellion" in my CD collection. I have loads of pop-Country from the '80s like Kathy Mattea and Jennifer McCarter & The McCarters. I don't sing or dance (not into either, probably just as well), but can listen intensely to whatever's playing on the MP3 or CD player.

Likewise I also enjoy watching movies. Most of what I like most are comedies, and even better would be comedies with meaning. I think Real Genius is pure genius - one of the great movies of all time. Likewise, Amelie (real title Le Fabuleux destin d'Amélie Poulain) was entirely enjoyable and I was shocked when I found out that I was one of the few who hadn't seen it. Then there are some odd favorites such as Ghost World and The Unbelievable Truth that really fall into that category of comedies with meaning. Finally, L.A. Story is a truly great romantic comedy (I won't bother explaining why - just see it). For some more lighthearted "B" movies (okay, maybe "C" or "D" too...) try 100 Women or Sexy Movie. I've seen more movies than I can remember.

My favorite TV programs are as varied as my musical and movie interests. I enjoy The Simpsons, South Park, and Robot Chicken but also CSI, Lingo (on the Game Show Network), various cooking shows on the Food TV channel, and various shows on The Discovery Channel or The Learning Channel.

To get away from things in Austin, I'll take mini road-trips out to various places. Usually, I don't have any real destination in mind - I just enjoy seeing trees and countryside rather than big concrete structures. While I can't say I'm really much of an outdoorsy person (definitely not a rugged outdoor type), I am definitely not a city person. If I could, I would be living in a subterranean or cave home out in a less densely populated area (I hesitate to say "rural" because I like living near people, just not so close).

I like going out to eat just about any type of food. The two caveats are that the location is non-smoking and that I don't need to dress-up at all. Eating out, for me, is to relax and enjoy myself, and having to worry about dress is just not relaxing. If I can't come in jeans and a plaid shirt (my official geek uniform), then it probably isn't the place for me. Good Italian food and Texas BBQ is heaven.

I generally enjoy being with animals, with a preference for cats. I volunteer at the Austin Humane Society as a "cat socializer" which is very fun (excluding the politics there). My own cat is a 16 year old Siamese mix. He manages to tolerate his unusual human.

Finally, as the name of this "blog" implies, I'm an avid computer enthusiast that gets to do this stuff for a living as well. My interests are mostly in computer networking and communications, but I've done various things with computers over the years. Anyone who knows me also knows I'm also a big supporter of the Open Source movement. I strongly feel that it's morally wrong for companies to control or own the technology that allows people to communicate. Innovation can't happen without an open platform on which to develop. So while many people get excited about seeing movies through their computer, I'm usually getting my hands dirty at a lower level figuring out how to make bits flow better. Lately I haven't been doing much of this as a hobby as I once did because my job keeps me plenty busy. But I still enjoy what I do (usually) and have an unusual home set-up.

So that's a small piece of what gets me excited. There is, of course, a lot more to know, but I'll leave that for later...

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Back to the future

In an effort to stay away from the office today, I got into my Prius, charged up the flux capacitor, got to 88 MPH, and took a trip back to 1996 Sugar Land, TX. Seriously, I didn't go 88 MPH, the flux capacitor was actually a bunch of NiMH batteries, and the year is 2007 - but I really did end up in Sugar Land, TX.

Almost 11 years ago I moved to Austin from the Houston area. There are days I wonder whether I did the right thing even though everyone reading this will simultaneously shout "YES! You did!" at their computers. I had a nice house in Sugar Land and worked for a big computer company (yeah, that one). It is hard to remember sometimes just how miserable I was becoming right before I moved: There was the barking dog in the back that was waking me up, the neighbors-from-hell across the street, all the stuff I was accomplishing at work being converted to Microsoft Windows. If that weren't enough the trip today was a testament to why moving to Austin was absolutely the right move. When I arrived in Sugar Land today, I was trying to find my old apartment and house. My first comment to myself was, "I have no idea where I am." The area has become so crowded it may as well be an extension of Houston. My old apartment building is now managed by Gables Residential, and they destroyed it like they've destroyed most other apartment complexes (it was run down and I couldn't even find where I used to live). I haven't actually seen my old house in the daytime in a long time. The new owners have let it get really run down. The beautiful (but in need of refinishing) wood door was replaced by a white steel door. Yuck (the new door doesn't go with the house). The fence was in need of maintenance when I moved - 11 years later, it is still in need of maintenance in the same places, and more. I really liked that house - it was a neat house. The neighborhood, oh well...what can I say... Yes, as much as I don't like what's happening to Austin, I can say without any hesitation that moving was a good idea.

The impromptu trip was not without some value though:

I didn't end up going to the office. Mission accomplished.

The sunset from the countryside along "alt 90" tonight was amazing. I mean it was amazing enough to really have needed a camera (which I, of course, neglected to bring being an impromptu trip).

Aside from some small irritations (and the fact I was kind of tired and getting drowsy driving), it was a relaxing trip.

But it does bother me that they're doing to Austin the same thing that they've done to Sugar Land and the other Houston suburbs. Sometimes growth is NOT a good thing. Smart growth sometimes is agreeing that the way things are is just fine. But I suppose I'm never going to win on this, and when Austin becomes the next Sugar Land, it'll be time to move on. Sigh...

If you want a real shock, see the movie "The Sugarland Express" (the beginning was really filmed near TX Hwy 6 and US59 (soon to become I65, as I just found out). It looked nothing like that 11 years ago, and now it REALLY doesn't look like that.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Making easy-listening music palatable

In my continuing exploration through the cassette tapes I have had since the 1970s, I found a treat that absolutely deserves sharing...

Somehow I must have been in a really weird mood one evening. I had a sound effects record, my FM radio tuned to the "easy listening" music station, a tape deck, and obviously way too much time on my hands.

I have three songs: an instrumental version of "I'll Never Fall In Love Again," some really sweet vocal but can't figure out what the title is, and another instrumental of a song I don't know all mixed with the sound effects recording of a thunderstorm playing in the background (the track was repeated over and over again as needed). I'm not exactly sure how I mixed the recordings because the sound quality isn't all that bad considering the equipment used.

In any case - the results were hilarious and almost soothing at the same time. Particularly with the vocal, in some places the thunder clap came at just the right time in the song for humorous effect. It was definitely worth saving for posterity.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Little Miracles

Why does one choose to not have children?

This question comes up often to people in the child-free community - sometimes even among ourselves. It would be wrong not to ask this question just as it is wrong for people to not honestly ask themselves why they do choose to have children.

Let's talk green for a moment: Of all the things that environmentalists address, they usually forget one of the biggest ones -- the number of human beings on this planet. According to both the United Nations and the US Government's Census sites, the world population is increasing. In the United States alone there are over 300 million people - for the world, in excess of 6 billion human beings. This number is not going down - maybe in certain countries it is, but world-wide it is increasing, as it is in the United States. Particularly in developed countries, the life expectancy of the average human being has increased. There is no reason to be fruitful and multiply as certain religious groups would have you believe. While it is true that humans are not the only living beings that tax the ecosystem, we're by far the worst. We consume far more resources than we need to live, and we don't care if we deplete the supply until it's too late. If it's green you're trying to be, then the ultimate green decision is to stop adding to the Earth's population.

People need a license and insurance to drive a car (in the United States, anyway). Why? The license is to assure that you know the basic "rules-of-the-road" and insurance is to assure that you are financially responsible for your share of the blame in an accident. To have children you need neither a license nor insurance - and in looking at how people drive (given the requirements for that privilege) it's no wonder how little thought is given to the emotional, personal, and financial requirements necessary to bear and raise a child. People consider it a right and as such they see no reason why society as a whole should not share the burden (blessing?) of rearing this child. For me, personally, I do have the financial resources but I lack the emotional and personal (time) resources for such an important endeavor. I've watched and most people who have made a lifestyle choice to have children lack one or more of those three essential requirements and either refuse to admit it or determine that children are so important to society that everyone should help offset those shortcomings. I disagree...society doesn't need more selfish people in the world.

Which brings me to my third comment and ultimate bitch on the subject: The assumption by many people that children are little miracles and are the reason why we're here, and that they are the ultimate fulfillment of one's life, etc. I won't even go further into detail into this utter bullshit because that's what it is. First, I've only heard of one story of immaculate conception and even that one is suspect in my opinion. So for everyone else out there it goes like this: Two people of the opposite sex actually have a little sex, sperm fertilizes egg, nine months later if you have a healthy sperm, egg, and incubator, out pops at least one miniature human being. There is nothing miraculous about this - it's nature. Lots of animals do it. Second, don't preach to me about love being part of the equation either, because there's a lot of women getting knocked-up about the same way that the family dog gets knocked-up. Yes, we are here because someone had sex, etc. But that isn't any reason why the process is miraculous, and it certainly doesn't need future mom parking places at the supermarket, breast-feeding in public (it's a private thing, really), special privileges at work, and you name it. Folks - get real here. Your offspring requires more of the public's resources and yet you want tax breaks, special privileges, and you drive your SUV while the rest of us should protect the planet's resources for your child's future. This isn't miraculous, it's downright selfish, unreasonable, and insane. I have no interest in being part of this club.

I applaud people who have taken the care to plan for their family -- assure they have the proper resources available to raise their child, then spend the time doing just that. It's a hard job and doing it right means sacrificing personal dreams and goals in order to do what's best for your child. While this isn't miraculous and I still don't feel you deserve special treatment (because you planned properly for your family, remember), I do give you a pat on the back and special respect for doing it right. Your kids are probably wonderful to be around, and are willing to give back to the world instead of constantly taking and taking and taking from it. I only know a few people who are actually like this and because of their devotion to their kids, I don't see them very often. However, it makes me feel good and I realize that I could never do the job as well as they do. I know I don't need children to define me - I give back in other ways that hopefully makes the world a better place. If you can't see your life being worthwhile without children, then you probably don't have the emotional resources to raise children. Find your own worth first, plan for your family, consider your impact on the world, then have children when you're ready. You've now started to make the world a better place, for you and your children.