Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Traditions

The last couple of weeks have been, well, lackluster at best. It's always hard to write about the goings-on when things are like this.

Last week I took my drive through a favorite neighborhood looking at the Christmas lights and listening to Christmas music on the radio (I, personally, like the old standards). This is kind of a little tradition I started doing a few years ago. This year the light displays were not nearly as impressive as in years past. Being by myself again doing this gave me time to reflect on some things...

The most obvious reflection was that I was again doing my now-traditional Christmas light tour alone. This seems to be a recuring theme lately. While I have taken a genuine interest in what my friends do and have, I don't feel as though the feeling is returned. I realized that I've reduced my answer to being questioned about what I've been doing to the old standby of, "Not much." That just isn't true though. A lot has happened, but it seems that trying to finish talking about it or garner any interest in what I do is met with polite disinterest, or impolite change-of-topic as soon as someone interrupts me. Witholding my genuine interest isn't an option because of that word genuine. Likewise, if folks truly think what I say and do is boring, uninteresting, too abstract, or otherwise undesirable, I can't say I'd want them to feign interest either. It does make me wonder where in heck I belong among people. Psychology's favorite comment is that you have to be happy with yourself before others will be happy with you, and that isn't my problem. So as I drove along listening to the Christmas music that I have since I was a kid looking at the lights, enjoying others' creativity and artistry, I wondered what made this experience (among many) so unique that it was always me enjoying things alone.

Christmas dinner was spent a friend's house that I only see about once or twice a year. Seeing them around this time of the year has started to be come a tradition of sorts. I've mentioned these friends in passing a couple of times on here -- I don't see them much because they have three kids and are good parents (very involved in their kids' stuff). The dinner was good and it was good seeing them.

Slightly out-of-order timewise...

Several friends came to the open house where I work this year. I'm still not sure how enjoyable it was for them, and whether they came out of the experience with any better idea of what it is that I do.

The annual Austin Childfree holiday party was. It was a little more stressful this year because some unexpected horrible traffic caused me and the two passengers I had with me to be almost an hour late. I don't like driving in traffic. I also don't like being late either. So the event started with two strikes against it. It was otherwise good, but showing-up late there were several people I wanted to say "hello" to that I never really got to see.

So the past week and a half has mostly been filled with me staying-up late watching TV (after all I went through to get it working), playing solitaire on pogo.com, and poking around okcupid.com. I finally discovered what happens when you answer all 3,500 questions on it -- you get to evaluate people's suggestions for new questions. I haven't found anyone I'd want to consider a relationship (of the romantic kind) with on there yet though, and as time goes on I doubt that ever will happen.

So with trepidation I approach the oncoming new year, another tradition as well. When I return to work next week I have some supervisory responsibilities (people management) that need to be done that are going to be painful at best. I have to finish documenting the phone system interface and get a system management interface going. The documentation is not fun, and is being done so someone else can write the interface software. I don't have a lot of confidence that it will be done in a way I will feel comfortable with. In short, I'm not looking forward to going back. I don't see much else right now.

See y'all in the new year, probably.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

TV Satisfaction At Last

I was trying to find a way to make this humorous and short. Keeping it short is going to be impossible, so my apologies for that. Humor, well...

On the previous episode of As The TV Turns, we got a shiny new TiVo HD hoping to use CableCard (and the elusive "tuning adapter") to get cable TV via Time Warner Cable (TWC), was told that TWC would "reach out" to me, and I was somehow unable to feel their reach.

Frustrated I contacted TWC to cancel my cable TV service and sent an e-mail to TWC's vice president of technical development telling him why I was doing this. Of course, when I called to cancel my service, TWC all of a sudden became very cooperative. I was finally able to get the person to understand what I wanted, but there was still a question of what the service was going to cost. Basically the pricing had changed (as of December 1) and the customer service reps (CSRs) were unaware of how, exactly, that affected the pricing for CableCard customers. Further, they had no way of pricing customers who didn't have a cable box, which I no longer needed with CableCard (their computer system wouldn't let them price it). But I had hopes that it would get resolved and decided to move forward. I also started getting calls from a whole bunch of different supervisors, who were actually calling because of my e-mail to the VP of technical development. They were all attempting to work out the situation I had been experiencing. Finally, I start feeling better.

I called the next day for an installation appointment and the price they quoted me for my new service was about $10 less than I computed under ideal circumstances. Hot dog! I asked if they were sure about it, and I got an enthusiastic, "Yes!" Cool. Technician to come on Friday afternoon to read some numbers to a phone operator and plug a PCMCIA-like card into a slot on the TiVo HD. I'm still not sure how they got their pricing, but I expect that wrinkle to be worked-out sometime later...

Kink in the plan: On Wednesday and Thursday I noticed some problematic behavior with the TiVo - the audio was cutting-in-and-out on analog channels after the unit was inactive for the night. The only thing that fixed it was a reboot of the TiVo. So I call TiVo technical support. Long story short, they say that I got a defective TiVo and need to replace it. No problem. I tell them I have a CableCard installation on Friday, and I was concerned that the host IDs would be different. Should I postpone my CableCard installation until the new TiVo comes? "No, all you need to do is take the CableCard out of the old TiVo and put it into the new one. Everything will just work." I say, "Are you sure? I thought that the CableCard had to be 'paired' with the specific device, since each has a unique serial number (called a 'host ID')." She says, "Oh, no, it's not that hard." I say, "What about my current TiVo? Can I continue to use this until the new one arrives?" "I have it set-up so that won't be a problem," she says. Cool. My new, shiny new TiVo will be coming on Monday.

Friday comes. The most wonderful cute female TWC technician (moved to Austin from Tennessee and was in the military before TWC) comes out to install my CableCard and has a second person along, who I think was training under her. Not only did I get a cute technician, I also got one who was extremely knowledgeable and friendly, and obviously knew what she was doing. It was one of the more pleasant experiences I have had with TWC. Part of me wonders if they sent her because of some comment in my customer record that said, "Beware of customer. Send someone nice." I did notice that she did have to "pair" the CableCard with the TiVo's host ID (she calls someone at the TWC office to do this). Hmm...

After all the hoopla about the tuning adapters, coincidentally an hour after my CableCard installation, I got a call from TWC saying that my tuning adapter was available. "Come down to the lobby and pick it up." Got to TWC 15 minutes later, and apparently they had made a few calls before mine and 80 people (the folks they called before me and the friends of same folks) showed up and they ran out. "A truck will be here in a couple of hours with more adapters, you can come down and pick it up then or we'll reserve one for you and call you tomorrow." Heck, I'll come back. I did, they had one, and I was on my way. Amazing.

I stayed up all night Friday night into Saturday morning working with the tuning adapter and trying to figure out some quirks with it. I was able to receive switched TV channels (SDV channels, as you may recall) others seemingly had selected before me but any others came up as being "temporarily unavailable." Then I noticed something quite disturbing: My TiVo service had been discontinued (not the cable service, but the TiVo service). That started to explain the possible issues with the tuning adapter.

So I call TiVo technical support back, give them my case number, and explain that the service had been canceled on my old unit but I won't receive the new one until Monday. "I'm sorry, I can't help you with that. We can't have service on two units at once." Reluctantly, I accepted this and continued to ask, "I need to know for sure that I should be able to just take move the CableCard from the old to the new TiVo. I ask this because the installer had to call TWC with the host ID before everything would work." He said, "That's no problem. We have people specially trained to be able to contact the cable company, set-up a conference call, and take care of these issues." "Even if they want to send a technician for the install?" "Yes, that's no problem for us. We're committed to customer satisfaction and will make sure everything goes smoothly." With confidence, I wait without my digital cable channels until Monday.

Monday comes. I place a webcam in the window at my front door so I can see when the package arrives and I can leave work. I know I have a couple of hours of set-up ahead of me and then a call to TiVo tech support. The package arrives just before 3pm, and I'm gone and at home by 3. There waiting at the front door was the new, new TiVo. Cool. Unpack TiVo, hook it up, and start the lengthy "download, set-up, loading" process. While that was happening, I packaged-up the old shiny new TiVo and took it to UPS to return (so I can get the charge off my credit card...). An hour later the unit comes up and I plug-in the CableCard. The unit choked on the CableCard, as though it had no idea what a CableCard even was. Looked at the software version...new one is 8.1.7c2-01-2-652, previous one was version 11.0-01-2-652. Ah - needs a software update. So I force another connection to TiVo, and it does the download, set-up, loading thing again. I watch Jeopardy on the other TV in analog. About 40 minutes later the new software begins loading. A message comes on the screen to the effect that it is updating my service software, please wait. So I do. About 20 minutes later, another message comes on the screen. It says it is now finishing the update to my service software, "this will take an hour or more." WTF? Okay. About 40 minutes later, that's done. In case you were not keeping track, the "couple of hours" has now been 2 hours and 40 minutes, and it is now 5:40pm. Now I plug-in the CableCard, and immediately I can see all is not happy. The CableCard starts complaining periodically about calling the cable company to activate service. Yes, the pairing thing has come. However, it also says to go through "guided set-up" again to get information on all my channels. So I do.

The first part of guided set-up (before it actually starts downloading) takes about 20 minutes, 10 of those being the unit "preparing" to download. So when I got to the "preparing" part ("please wait"), I started doing some stuff for work. 10 minutes pass, then 20, then 30, then 35. I finally figured out (because I saw the display flicker periodically) that the CableCard's request for service was causing the "preparing" stage to, well, NOT prepare. So I unplug the TiVo, remove the CableCard, and start the guided set-up again. This time the 20 minute ordeal went fine, and it started the 40 minute "load" of the stuff it downloaded. It was now 6:40pm and I was starting to get increasingly pissed-off. So I called a friend and dropped-off a parking permit she was going to need on Friday, and came back home. Everything's done. It is now 7:30pm. Put in the CableCard, and got the grey screen again asking me to call to "activate" (pair) the CableCard. Let's call TiVo so they can contact TWC, like they said.

Called TiVo technical support (their "CableCard Hotline" is the same number as tech support). Waited on hold for 20 minutes, and finally got someone. Described the situation, and told him that since our cable company typically wants to send a tech to do the install, that I would like assistance from TiVo in getting the cable company to do get this going. Tech guy says, "Well, we can't do anything here. If your cable company's policy is to require a technician visit, then we can't change their policy." (I'm now thinking, "you've got to be fscking kidding me..."). I explain again what the other two people told me, and he repeats what he told me. I tell him, now getting more irate, that something will need to be done to help "get this going by tonight or I am going to send the TiVo and CableCard back from where it came." He says "I apologize" and repeats what he told me again. I said, "If you tell me that one more time I'm going to lose it! Please just put a supervisor on." Get put on hold for a few minutes, and of course there is no supervisor available. So this annoying 30 minute conversation now has me ready to scream. I have not eaten dinner yet (except for a little bowl of rice pudding).

It is 8:20pm, and I immediately concluded that a supervisor will call me when pigs fly. So left with no other option, I called TWC technical support (available 24 hours) with my tail between my legs prepared to explain what happened. A dispatcher answers in 5 minutes, and after I explain briefly what's happened, she says she needs to forward me to technical support (isn't that where I was?). I'm on hold for 30 minutes. Then a very enthusiastic guy answers the phone. I explain to him what TiVo asked me to do, explain that I have the host ID of the new TiVo, and ask if he would be able to help. He says, much to my surprise, "Sure! Let's have that number." Looks up my record, says it isn't the same as the old host ID, and I say, "yeah, it probably ends in 748." He says," That's right. Okay, let's rock and roll!" Punches the stuff into the computer and asks if I have a picture yet. "Nope." "Let me unpair these and re-pair them from scratch, and we'll see if that works." In seconds, a picture appears. I said, "that's got it!" He says, "Rock and roll!" (I think he liked that term) I thank him a couple of times for his help, especially after hours. He reminded me that they're available 24 hours to help me out. If I had only known... This is the second absolutely wonderful experience with TWC, and I am almost convinced now that my customer file is tagged as special.

Better still, everything worked. Even the SDV channels that required the tuning adapter worked perfectly now. The tuning adapter was happy, the CableCard was happy, the TiVo was happy (I think), and I was happy. It took SIX HOURS to get this working. I called my mother and unloaded on her for an hour.

I am still waiting for that call from the supervisor at TiVo technical support. I won't hold my breath. As much as I like the TiVo product, I absolutely HATE "nice" customer support people who give out wrong answers that us mortals call "lies." There was NO EXCUSE for TiVo tech support's awful behavior. For a group of people dedicated to customer satisfaction, their help was more like putting a pacifier in a baby's mouth. It doesn't solve the problem, it just shuts the customer up. The only thing they did right was to replace the defective TiVo. As I told my mother, I would rather have a tech support person who spoke to me like a robot and solved my problem than to have someone who acts like my friend and feeds me a bunch of lies. TiVo should give thanks to TWC's tech support guy who helpled me out - he saved a customer for them.

I promised a summary of the proper steps necessary to get this all going, without having to do the same thing I did. I am going to do that, but not today. I would like to have at least a day or so of watching TV without the thought of some tech support call looming over me. I reflected on my experience last night, considered how my parents would react, then thought about what part of the front yard the TiVo and cable equipment would land in when my father threw the whole mess out the window. When I wrote about our lives being overly-complex, this is what I was talking about. All this for entertainment. Good grief.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Oldies

Going through some of the functions on the new TiVo HD I ran upon the Live365 radio station site. I did a search on "Oldies" and came upon an old favorite radio station from back up on Long Island: WLNG. Listening to WLNG is like taking a trip back in time - their format and style is much like the radio stations of the late '60s/early '70s.

Something surprised me when they played a song from the late 1980s and called the song an "oldie." Then I thought about that a little. The '80s are 20 years ago.

So what does 60s music now qualify as? Classical music? Classic rock? Thing is that music of the 80s is very different from that of the 60s, and even much of the 70s. When I think of "oldies" I think of music of the late 50s through the 60s.

Well, anyway, despite the song from the '80s (which turned out to be good anyway) it was fun to listen to WLNG again.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Time Warner Reaching Out & TiVo HD

Maybe I should just rename this the "Time Warner Blog." Only kidding. Skip down a few paragraphs to get to the TiVo HD impressions.

Well, as I expected, Time Warner Cable didn't "reach out to me" or do anything else for me for that matter. I did call TWC again with TiVo HD in home and ready to change service. So here are the facts, from the customer service and technical support people at Time Warner Cable/Austin:
  • With CableCard most of the HD channels are unavailable without the new "tuning adapter." By most, I mean all except for most of the local network channels (which I can get from antenna), Discovery HD Theater, and one other one (insignificant to me, so I didn't remember)
  • The tuning adapters that were supposed to be available "next week" (according to Jeff Simmermon) are not available in the Austin area. There is a sign-up form on the web site, but that is only to reserve one "when they become available." I was told by technical support that they weren't even allowed to talk about the tuning adapters except to people who were part of the beta test.
  • In order to get CableCard for the TiVo, I will need to have someone come to my house to "install it," and it will cost me $41.26 in installation fees. This was not negotiable. The monthly price is $2.65. I was told that it was priced that way "because it doesn't receive all the channels."
  • If I disconnect cable TV completely but keep RoadRunner, it will not cost anything extra (in other words, I don't get charged any change fees).
I'm on the brink of simply canceling my cable TV service until TWC can get their act together and complete the so-called "beta testing" of the tuning adapters. I didn't cancel today because the decision will be final and I want to take one more day to determine the impact of doing this.

Here are my initial impressions on the TiVo HD:

The shiny new TiVo HD arrived yesterday all activated and ready to go. As I have come to expect from TiVo, the unit itself seemed well-built and was nice and quiet. The remote is easy to use and set-up and the interface is as I remembered it from the DirecTV TiVo days. If you've ever used a TiVo, you'll understand what I mean by this, if not then you're not aware yet of what you're missing. It's actually a real pleasure to use. So rather than just listing what it does and how great or terrible it may be, I'm going to just list my experiences and hopefully that will give you an idea of what it's like.

For those who are impatient, a good summary of my initial feelings are that it's nice, it works pretty well, but still has some issues that need serious attention.

So that said, here's the longer version:
  • Hooking it up was simple. It connected to my network well, although I had a typo in my network configuration (on my computer, not a TiVo problem). Connecting the TiVo to the TV was as simple as one HDMI cable. Nice.
  • My firewall is pretty restrictive, but it managed to contact TiVo just fine. Despite the fact that I opened up all the ports (services on the firewall) that the TiVo web site mentioned, the TiVo is still complaining (ports test failed) that I have something blocked. Even when everything was wide open, the TiVo still complained. Everything does appear to work though.
  • The antenna reception is excellent. It gets all the channels I was able to get with my PC TV card, and then some. The sound was cutting-out a little on channel 42-2 (that's the retro TV network) but I have seen that happen without the TiVo. I need to investigate this further.
  • The responsiveness of the system is a bit slow. I've heard some complaints about this, and while it is mildly annoying, I wouldn't say it is a show-stopper. The good thing about TiVo is that they tend to improve this kind of thing over time.
  • TiVo boasts being able to connect to many different Internet-based services if you have a network connection attached. One of these is YouTube. YouTube literally crashes the TiVo. I mean, hoses it seriously up to the point where it needs to be power-cycled most of the time. If you're lucky and it doesn't crash, then things start to function poorly, like it started having problems tuning TV channels until I restarted it. This is VERY VERY bad and gives me an uneasy feeling about what else may be lurking that I haven't tried yet. My guess at the problem (from personal experience) is that the Flash implementation in the TiVo is broken. That doesn't surprise me, of course, because Flash is evil anyway. But when you're paying for something, you expect it to work, and work well.
  • When accessing the external "broadband services" I would get a message that the services aren't available right now (try again later), then if I went right back in it would start working. Weird. Not sure what that was all about.
  • I did download some videos ("TiVo-casts") and they worked okay, but it was kind of like watching it on a computer screen than on a HDTV. In particular, the Music Choice videos were 16:9 (widescreen) format, but showed-up as letterboxed 4:3 on my screen (I had to "zoom" the screen to make it fill up my screen properly). Again, it was more like watching a computer video online - was definitely not high definition.
  • I was able to log-into my Picasa account and access the photos in my album, and they looked awesome on the screen. Using it was a little cumbersome, but it was otherwise nice.
  • The recording options worked great, as expected. I scheduled recordings of The Simpsons and some other programs and everything worked well. I even hooked the cable line and told it to use analog cable (because I don't have a CableCard...argh...) and that worked fine as well (as well as low-def analog signals look on a big TV, anyway).
  • I also tested setting-up a recording remotely through my TiVo account online. It did work great, and I was impressed that all the recording options available on the TiVo itself were available through the online recording screen. Only problem is that you can't see what you already are set-up to record. That would be a nice feature. Maybe it is there and I haven't found it yet, but that would be a problem too (should be easy to find).
  • The dual tuner feature as implemented in the TiVo is an absolute pleasure. Unlike the cable DVR, you can flip back and forth between both tuners and it doesn't lose the playback buffer for each channel. You can also go to other menus and the TiVo just happily keeps that buffer going, so if you missed anything you just rewind a few minutes.
  • The TiVo very happily works with over-the-air antenna and cable TV simultaneously. Since getting the broadcast channels from the antenna is actually better quality than over cable, you simply tell the TiVo to remove the cable channel and use the antenna for each broadcast TV channel, and it just works.
  • What I need to find out from the instructions, though, and I certainly hope it is possible, is how to tune in a digital TV channel on the antenna from the keypad. There is no minus sign on the remote, so I can't select channel 42-1 or 7-1 because there's not a "-" key. If I just select "42" then it goes to the analog TV channel 42, or cable channel 42. Ed note: I just read the instruction guide again, and pressing the "=>" arrow button causes a "-" to be inserted in the channel number. Cool!
  • Picture quality is good. I noticed no ill effects here.
  • I dislike that, like the cable DVR, I cannot use the closed captioning feature on my TV, I can only let the TiVo do the captions. Why is this bad? Because with my TV, I can change the style of the captions so they don't interfere with the picture, and if the TiVo does the captions itself, then I can't use the TV's style changes. I'm not sure what's up with this, in general. Can closed captioning be sent over the HDMI cable?
My biggest complaints about the TiVo HD are cost ($300 for the box) and the very flaky broadband services stuff. If they're using Flash to render things, then this is the wrong way to do it. They should stream MP4 video or something like that. If I purchase a movie through Amazon or view a Netflix movie through their interface, I don't want it to look like it is coming off a Flash or AVI file on a computer - I want it to look like I put the DVD (or Blu-Ray) disk into my player and watching it that way. If what I've seen so far is the best they can do, then I can just let my PC do the playing, and the TiVo HD becomes just another DVR (albeit a nice DVR).

I have 30 days to decide whether or not I feel this whole thing was worthwhile and if I want to keep the TiVo HD. I'm sure over the next week or so I'll have a better feel for whether it is worth keeping. I'd like to be able to say how the CableCard works in the TiVo, but since Time Warner wants to be pig-headed about things that'll probably not be happening.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Buy Nothing Day 2008

Once again, I'm happily participating in the Buy Nothing Day event that the Adbusters folks kind of started. There were a few comments by others posted on their web site that I'd like to address.

The comment that seems to come up mostly goes like: "This is stupid -- why should I buy something at full retail price and avoid the sales on Black Friday?" My opinion on this is that if you planned to buy something anyway and have been waiting for the sales, then by all means buy it. However, what a large majority of people do is go out to the stores with the sole purpose of impulse-buying anything that has a good price. The retail stores want to keep impulse-shoppers shopping.

Then comes the declaration, "If you don't buy something you will push our economy into further turmoil and people will start losing their jobs!" This is the exact issue that that Buy Nothing Day is trying to address. When our economy is so sensitive that it requires people to purchase things they don't really need one day out of the year, then it indicates something is much more wrong. People are going to lose their jobs anyway, whether or not Buy Nothing Day goes forward. So instead of everyone making a mad dash to the stores on Friday, they do it on Saturday. The stores will still get their customers and less people will be killing each other trying to get a "good deal" on some object they probably don't need anyway.

The idea of Buy Nothing Day is for people to take a moment to consider whether they really need more things, and to look at potential alternatives to buying stuff as a recreational activity. Instead of flocking to the stores to buy stuff you'll probably use only once (but you got a great deal on), go to a friend's house and have some Thanksgiving leftovers and play board games. Go do some volunteer work. The idea is that rather than increasing your personal collection of stuff, it's a day to begin to get more meaning from life by spending it with other people (or animals, sometimes, in my case).

This is one of the reasons I support the idea of having no children. Let's face it, a large part of the problem with the economy is that there are just too many people. As technology improves the number of jobs done by people decreases. If you increase the population and decrease the number of jobs, that's a recipe for disaster, like we're seeing now. The only way that we can sustain positive population growth is for all of those people to do something that will create jobs, and the quickest way for that to happen is for them to rampently consume. Keep in mind that most retail jobs don't pay enough to sustain a family (meaning, both heads-of-household need to work at least one job to support the family). As people rampently consume, the environment and our available natural resources suffer, and the prices increase. This is not a cycle that promotes good stewardship of the planet or our society in general. This cycle is not sustainable. It is not good for families. It is not good for community. It is not good for much of anything. People who value things more than other living beings find themselves always trying to have more than their neighbor. This promotes crime, violence, and other social problems. The only way to break the cycle is to limit the population.

Like with most everything, though, the short-term Band-Aid looks a lot more attractive than a long-term fix. I don't expect that people will figure this out anytime soon. We have a bunch of religious zealots who have dug up the "be fruitful and multiply" mantra out-of-context as a justification for their thoughtless lifestyle. Still other people feel their life would not be complete without a little human in their midst. To all of you, I give this thought: What kind of world do you think your kids are going to inhabit at the current rate of population increase and with our current lifestyle becoming less sustainable over time? Do you really feel justified in forcing that kind of life onto another human being? Think about it... Buy Nothing Day makes time to do just that: Think. Think first.

For more information about population control and its economic impacts, see the Population Connection web site (www.zpg.org).

I'd also like to take a second to urge Adbusters to find some other way than Flash to make their movies available. Stream MP4 video or something like that, or at least make it an option.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Time Warner Update

It kind of surprised me that I actually had a response from Time Warner Cable to my previous posting ("Alien"). The initial response from Jeff Simmermon made me glad that I got side-tracked with other responsibilities and ended up not calling again about my cable TV service. I thought, "Great! Someone who can definitely help!"

So with hopes of finally getting a resolution to my issues, I sent a very polite and detailed message to Jeff on the 17th of November listing my questions and briefly indicating my concerns with the current DVR. I thought I would share with you the response I got back. Hold on, there seems to be a problem here. Uhhh....I don't see any response, a week later. I haven't received any phone calls. Nothing in my e-mail. Zip. Zero. Nada.

This is a case-in-point about my concerns with customer service and the resulting frustration I mentioned before. I don't feel I am being heard, and I do not feel like a "valued customer." Allow me to spell this out in simpler terms (and this is paraphrasing what I've sent to TWC twice now): If I have computed this correctly (and it isn't easy, given the mysterious pricing and fees structure TWC uses) my TV costs are about to increase to around $90/month with fees and taxes. I have been paying about half that amount for almost the past 12 months because I switched from satellite. That $90/month is $1,080/year. That total is for digital cable and a DVR (note to TWC: don't give me your fscking crap about "free HD" because $90/month is more than what it would cost from the satellite company for their service with HD broken out as a separate item). The DVR rental and service fee are about 20% of that cost ($18/month or $216/year). Compared to the level of service I am receiving, the cost is amazingly high. For $90/month I would expect service that generally works flawlessly, with customer service that I can contact and who really are concerned about keeping me as a customer. My current experience is that the best TWC can provide is beta-quality (at best) DVR service and a signal that has generally good availability unless there's a problem. Customer support is limited to swapping out parts and sending a technician within a couple of days when TV service is completely out. It is a pleasant but rare exception that I end up with someone that really cares about the service being provided and wants to make it better.

So here's how this is going to go, TWC, if you're listening again: If I have to call you again, it is going to be to cancel my TV service, and that call is going to happen before the middle of next week unless I can get my issues resolved. By "resolved," I mean that the service I am subscribing to (or CableCard on TiVo) can be provided and it works, really works, reliably, or we can work out some arrangement where I am getting charged beta prices for beta-quality service. Otherwise I'm going to be happy diverting my $90/month to a Netflix subscription and some other form of entertainment. Will I miss my cable TV? Sure will. But I won't miss paying you $90/month.

Finally - this is for "Speck" who asked me what was wrong with the DVR (because she's gotten a new TV and wanted to know what to do about her cable, just in case TWC thinks I'm a total recluse). I couldn't rattle the list off at the party the other day. Note that there are probably other issues, these are just the ones I could remember:
  • Sometimes reboots at the beginning of recording, causing first 10 minutes of a program to be lost
  • Will sometimes stop recording during the last several minutes of the program for no reason
  • When the beginning or end time is extended to account for a program running slightly over the allotted time, the DVR will do it only once, not at all, or all the time, without any clear consistency. This is necessary for anything airing on Comedy Central.
  • Unit will occasionally become temporarily unresponsive to the remote control, particularly during fast forward or rewind (the friggin batteries are just fine, don't even ask me about that)
  • When playing back recorded programs, it is sometimes necessary to play a different recording before the one to play back will actually play (give something other than a blank screen)
  • Search features are practically unusable:
    1. Only search is by first letter of program, then need to scroll through list to find program. Will only show for one day.
    2. In order to see a different day, or look at a different program, the entire process must be repeated.
    3. No way of knowing which program when multiple search results are present without going back to the beginning of the search process each time listing is looked at
    4. Scrolling through the guide grid is painful - it moves very slowly to the point of falling behind pressing the keys on the remote control
  • Guide cannot resolve recording conflicts properly if a single program episode airs multiple times during the same day (TiVo can do this...)
  • Cannot remove channels from the guide that I either do not receive or do not watch ("favorites" only affects skipping to the next channel, it does not change the guide)
  • On FOX, it sometimes breaks the program up into pieces. This has happened occasionally on other channels as well. If watching live TV, this also causes the replay buffer to erase, preventing the ability to rewind to an earlier part of the program.
Hopefully that helps you (and anyone else) who is thinking about this. The DVR is a Scientific Atlanta abomination, not TWC-specific.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Alien

Merriam-Webster's Dictionary Definition:
ā-lē-ən (adjective) (2) :
differing in nature or character typically to the point of incompatibility

I've had enough. Obviously it's just me because the rest of the world goes on. I simply can't take much more of it. The stupidity. The insanity. The complete lack of common sense. The total disregard for a job done well - the emphasis being merely on profit. What has this world become?

Where do I begin?

At lunch today I heard the conservative banter about how the election of an openly liberal president and his policies will totally lead the United States into destruction by the terrorists. "How are we going to handle when the terrori
sts are let out Guantanamo Bay and start attacking Americans because they hate Americans, and want nothing more than to destroy us?" This said in the context of continuing the alleged war on terror, that I still assert is not a war at all. Intelligent people look at the why, not just the what. The liberals see our new president as some kind of savior, who is going to fix the world by taking from those that have and give it to those who have not, like communism/socialism has worked in some other place in the world. Give the government that kind of power and it is that same government that ends up screwing the people. Not to mention that it doesn't seem right to reward bad behavior. In the name of helping people who have fallen on hard times, we hand out money and things to people who just continue to make bad decisions, to the point where people who fall on hard times are too proud to accept the assistance (or those who need it find too much red tape to access it).

The City of Austin wants to create an opening (entrance) from my street (more precisely, around the corner from me) into a secluded wooded area that has paths into a park in an industrial and apartment planned community. Sounds like a good idea, but nobody ever asked us if this was something we wanted in our neighborhood. So the neighbor who lives in the house next to the planned entrance starts a petition to block the creation of said entrance. Most of the people in the immediate area sign the petition. So what does the city do? They tell us that we have no real recourse here, that a bicycle group wants the opening, and that even if we petition against it, they will go over our heads and do it anyway. I wouldn't mind talking about the idea if they would consider that teens are already using that wooded area for illegal activity at night, and the areas outside our neighborhood are experiencing problems with graffiti and other property crimes. Nobody has addressed the impact on the residents adjacent to the opening. They simply don't care.

I am doing battle with the Time Warner Cable right now. The Scientific Atlanta DVR they provide is a hunk of shit. More specifically, it is unreliable and awkward to use. I frequently lose parts of the programs I record because it either crashes or it refuses to record past the end of the program when I tell it to do this. Its functionality is lacking - providing, at best, what a VCR would do instead of the kind of interface a TiVo would provide. So TiVo recently (about a year ago) works out something with the manufacturers of the cable head-ends and Cable Labs (a consortium that handles the CableCard encryption devices) to have a device that would allow CableCard to pick-up the subscribed channels on the cable system even on the newer technology (switched digital video) connections. So I call TWC, and I ask them, "Do you have the CableCard Tuning Adapters available?" "No," they say. "They're not available in Austin yet, and we don't know when we will be deploying them." So I asked, in an e-mail, who I can speak with at TWC/Austin who will be willing to work with me to resolve this frustrating situation before I take my business elsewhere. They replied with an e-mail repeating their position on CableCard. Does this mean that they don't want my business? Stay tuned and find out. I suspect they don't f**king care.

Time after time after time it's the same old story. I recently told someone that this is the kind of attitude I have come to expect from customer service in any organization, so I usually don't call. I don't get a thrill out of fighting "the man" and eventually getting something out of them for my trouble. In the case of the cable company, I watch TV to relax. If I get stressed-out in the process of getting the very thing I use to relax, then it kind of defeats the purpose.

The barking dogs, the excessively conservative/liberal morons, thoughtless reproduction, religion, customer service, people just acting dumb, and of course, JC's post office incident too. Hey, I admit I'm not perfect and am entitled to a blonde moment once in a while, but for the love of some deity the wholesale distribution of stupidity and utter lack of understanding is amazing. Amazing in a bad way.

I feel as though I'm alien to this world. It's that feeling that makes you ask yourself, "Owwww...How do I make it stop? To where can I run away from it?" I've tried understanding. I've tried writing it down in a blog. I've tried calling up companies ranting and raving. I've tried ignoring it. I've even tried not caring, but couldn't keep it up. I can't accept it. It's wrong.

Seriously, I thought writing it down would make me feel better, or at least collect my thoughts such that I'd come to tolerate it all again. I don't feel any better, and I'm about to call the cable company. I'm going to call someone and ask, "Do you see what I wrote? Did you read the response? If you were in my position, how would you feel about this? Would you want to continue to do business with that company?" I am trying to mentally prepare myself to hear a response that completely ignores what I ask and begins, "We don't have CableCard Tuning Adapters in the Austin market yet and..." I wonder who'll clean the blood off the walls in my office after I turn red and my head explodes.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Down the middle

Well, I feel compelled to say something about the election. I guess first my congratulations to all those who worked hard to get their word out and who accomplished their goals. Likewise, to the people who didn't win the election, it is obvious from the election results that your efforts did not go unnoticed.

My first comment is about City of Austin Proposition 2, since I wrote extensively about that a few weeks ago. While it was defeated, it wasn't defeated by a large margin. In fact, I think all of the people I know who voted against it did so because they felt strongly about contractual obligations, and I can understand their position. Given this, I think it should be very clear to the Austin City Council that the people who live here don't want any more subsidies made to build large retail malls. If the proposition was presented as a way to limit future subsidies to retail stores, the proposition would have passed. My hat's off to the people at Stop Domain Subsidies, though, for their grass-roots efforts to fight this. While the proposition didn't pass, you did succeed in bringing this kind of issue to the forefront, as most people didn't even know this was happening.

The presidential election was actually a telling tale as well. Most people have concentrated on the idea that we have elected the first black president (Barrack is an American, not a hyphenated-American). Again, the U.S. presidential race was very close when you look at the popular votes in most states. While my support went to Barrack, and I am glad he will be our next president, it is important to note that as a country our opinions were clearly split. In my opinion, John McCain would have taken this election had he not chosen Sarah Palin as his running-mate. Both men would make a good president, although overall I feel that Barrack Obama will bring a younger perspective to federal government that is sorely needed. Both McCain's and Obama's speeches were moving and I do believe that they were not just words but both men's statements were heartfelt. I think both men knew how divided this country was, and the idea that both sides of the political fence need to listen to each other is absolutely necessary.

I guess this is where I say once again that this country is extremely polarized at the moment. It isn't a clear case of one political ideology prevailing over another. There is plenty of misinformation to go around, and the truth lies somewhere in the middle (as it usually does).

What I will say, though, is that it is time for people to stop looking to government to make their lives easier. That is not the function of government. If you decide to have kids it is not up to the government to lower your taxes so that you can more easily cope with that decision. If you're a single person you don't get to not pay school taxes because you have no kids in school. School vouchering is evil. A public fund to help people out when they've tried hard and can't make ends meet is okay...but bailing-out a failed financial system by pumping money into the very system that failed is stupid. Giving people money to pay their mortgages because they over-extended themselves is also not very wise. Why in the world should religious organizations be tax-exempt? Barrack was very right when he said that there are going to be sacrifices and hard work ahead. I hope he means that the sacrifices are going to be made on the taker's side and not on the giver's side. We give far too much assistance to far too many people and corporations/organizations who clearly shouldn't have it. If you're a parent and you're really concerned about the future your children will inherit then it's time to teach them personal responsibility and that there is no such thing as a free lunch.

It is a strong leader that does what is right for the country and not what is right for his party, or for the people who funded his campaign. I ask that all of our elected officials consider this and make this year one of doing what is truly in the best interests of preserving this country long-term, and not meddling in short-term fixes or hand-outs to make people happy. That's not how America became what it is.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Why do I do this?

I must say that I stole today's title from comedian Bill Burr. His recent stand-up routine was titled, "Why do I do this?" I felt that it was an appropriate title for today. I'll say a bit about the stand-up routine at the end...

I realized today - two months after the fact - that it has has been a year (and two months) since I started doing this blog thing. Reading that first posting and looking what has transpired over the past year seems to indicate that I delivered on all the promises I made. That's at least better than what we can expect from most of the politicians we're about to elect into office. So I ask myself, "Why do I do this?" From a psychological point-of-view, I suppose that venting by putting thoughts to words helps to organize thought into something more coherent than to just blurt them out in the middle of a dinner with friends. Some of my friends (the ones who know I do this) have been reading this stuff rather regularly, and I think they feel it is somewhat refreshing to be able to see somewhat deeper into what I'm thinking (sometimes good, sometimes bad). I have made the acquaintance of a couple of fellow bloggers who I only know through this medium, kind of at random, merely through some common interests. I even caught the attention of two organizations, one in negative light and one in a more supportive light. I find it hard to believe that people actually have the time to read this given that my own schedule doesn't give me a lot of time to regularly read what too many others write. So all in all, I would say that I do this as a way to organize my thoughts and simultaneously pass those thoughts onto others who find them supportive and/or entertaining.

Life isn't simple anymore, and it isn't always pretty. A week and a half ago I decided to just take a day off from work and take a drive deep into the Texas "hill country" on a route I hadn't taken before. As I have in the past I looked at scenery and homes that made me realize how complicated my life has become. Like everyone else, I'm caught up in my job, the rat race of the city, whether or not I should keep paying outrageous prices for cable TV, and grumbling about the traffic from all the development people call "progress." Why do we do this? I don't think people were meant to live in such close proximity inside a concrete landscape. I'll be the first to admit that I'm not much of an outdoors person, but I can connect with the outdoors enough to appreciate its beauty. When I got out of my car to take these photos, it was so refreshing to hear nothing except a bird or two chirping occasionally. The sky was a perfect blue (no photoshop modifications here) and the air was fresh and there was lots of green even though Texas has had a deficit of rainfall this year. Driving along out in the middle of nowhere, the questions, "Who drives on this road? Where do they go?" came to mind. Some of the people who live in these parts are ranchers that raise the cattle that will eventually give their lives so we can have that hamburger we'll eat for lunch. As much as I enjoy a good burger or BBQ beef brisket, I can't imagine raising animals for the purpose of slaughter for a living. There are some oil fields with automated pumps to grab the "crude" from the ground. I would imagine some of the residents here service the oil pumps when they break. I often wonder how these folks would feel about an opinionated, athiest, computer enthusiast moving-in next door to them. It may just happen someday. The good news is that I'm a good neighbor, and "next door" in this case may mean a couple of miles away. I think about how long it would take my over-taxed brain to adapt to the lack of the daily rat race.

I also started to think about relationships and the search for a partner. Why do I do this? In this case I don't think I can answer the question anymore. I used to have an idea of what I felt "partner" in this context meant. I don't know anymore. I'm not even sure I can handle living and sleeping with a woman full-time at this point. I just heard about yet another dissolved marriage I saw as being healthy and almost perfect. I've managed to stay clear of the dating web sites for the most part -- logging-on once every couple of weeks to prove to myself that I am not missing out on the woman of my dreams. What is ironic is that one half of the couple that I just heard about breaking up was the same person who handed me the honey container last October (recall: Personal Honey). Now I have to wonder if I was correct in the theory that a container of honey is the best I can do looking for my own "personal honey."

So where does Bill Burr enter into all of this? I stumbled upon his stand-up routine on Comedy Central while "channel surfing" the other day. I tuned-in as he started joking about how not having kids was the right way to address the environmental issues we face (okay, his delivery was admittedly a lot more humorous than mine). It's important to remember that comedy is one way to get your point across in a subtle way without sounding like you're preaching. I'm not saying that every comedy act has a hidden message you need to "get," but I am saying that comedy is a way to deliver messages that are sometimes a little too harsh to just blurt out. I'm not sure why he asked, "Why do I do this?" Maybe if I saw the beginning...

With that, it's time to call it a night - particularly because the end of daylight savings time is throwing my body's (and my cat's) biological clocks into a state of confusion. Why do they do that?

Sunday, November 2, 2008

at&t DSL woes

A few years ago I moved away from DSL mainly because of issues with the company (Southwestern Bell, now called at&t) that provided the service. So when a coworker approached me to help her set-up her DSL and Linux system, I didn't think we'd have too much trouble. I couldn't have been more wrong.

Most people's problems with DSL stems from problems with the house wiring or forgetting to use those DSL filters they provide to you. We had no trouble getting sync and the modem worked fine. However, the next 2 and a half hours and a drive into our office were spent trying to get her service registered so she could use it. Yes, you read that right. I am not an id10t, I promise.

The problem is with at&t's web programmers who designed the registration page to only work with Microsoft Internet Explorer. Neither one of us had a working Windows system sitting around (I had my Linux-based laptop with me). For this kind of application no web developer worth their weight in salt would ever program a registration page that would require Internet Explorer. For two hours I spent trying both Firefox and SeaMonkey (the new name for the old Mozilla browser suite) figuring one of them would work. We couldn't get past the second page where you enter your telephone number (the "NEXT" button didn't do anything). We even tried loading Internet Explorer into "wine" (the Windows API for Linux) with no luck (wine has problems of its own, so my expectations of this were low to begin with). In desperation, we both drove into work and used one of the Windows systems there to register the username/password. After this experience I was reminded of the reason why I told at&t to take a hike with regard to my Internet service.

The other piece of idiocy with regard to this whole thing was their set-up process in general. Now I know it is necessary to make the set-up process as simple-to-follow as possible for those who are not network administrators to successfully set up the service. How much effort would it have taken to place somewhere prominently in the instructions, "If you are an experienced user and would like to install the service manually, look at the ManualInstall.html file on the installation CD?" It was out of desperation trying to find her account information in any of the many things they sent her that we thought of looking at the install CD (remember we're running Linux, and didn't expect anything of any value to us to be on that CD).

When I had DSL I remember it being pretty reliable. So I'm hoping now that I have helped my friend get past the installation of her DSL that she'll have many years of good service. The problem I see is that if she ever has problems she'll have problems with at&t technical support. With an attitude like the one they demonstrated with the installation instructions, I can't imagine how she'll ever convince someone at at&t that the sync loss (only attributable to a DSL problem) is due to the DSL service and not with her Linux system.

I refuse to be assimilated into the Microsoft collective because all these companies have decided they're only going to acknowledge the existence of this one operating system and associated applications. Is this a failing on my part? In any other situation it may be. However I will go back to the roots of the Internet and why various standards were developed. Microsoft has refused to stick to the standards (or properly work with the various committees to change/extend the standards) because it is in their own best interest to see to it that the computing environment remains as proprietary in their favor as possible. It would be the equivalent of developing an automotive fuel that only works with Microsoft cars, not telling anyone what was in the fuel, paying every gas station to dispense only Microsoft fuel, and then watch as all the other automobile manufacturers went out of business. The legal system in this country has been manipulated so that the idea of reverse-engineering a software (or any other) system is considered illegal. Patent abuse has become so widespread that it is virtually impossible to develop anything of any value without encroaching upon some company's patent...but that discussion is too large to cover here.

I'm not saying Microsoft should be put out of business (although that would probably please me given yesterday's experience). What I am saying is that innovation in technology does not occur by one company "owning" the entire technology and its processes. If Microsoft is a strong company technically they should be able to compete in the computing industry by taking the standards that everyone uses and presenting them in innovative ways. Instead they work outside the standards, refusing to give back anything to improving them, and use money to manipulate the marketplace so that they are the only ones who can produce a solution. People don't really understand the impact of this until it is their job that is lost to this kind of business practice.

So back to DSL and wrapping-this up: at&t should be ashamed of themselves for producing such an obviously Microsoft-specific Internet access solution. The technical parts of this are clearly operating system (and browser) agnostic and someone within at&t clearly made the decision to prevent it from being that way. Some programmer and/or web designer whored themselves to at&t to make such a poor solution.

PS: at&t's Uverse (television) service is based on Microsoft's IPTV solution. How long will it be until Microsoft owns the entire entertainment industry and you can't watch TV unless it has some kind of Microsoft-owned technology in it?

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

On Being Mad

I'm sure some of you are wondering why I chose The Mad Computer Scientist's Mind as the name of this blog. It is kind of a play on words, in several ways: Originally it came from the way I describe my home. I'm single, and so many single guys' homes are described as bachelor pads. My house isn't that way - in fact, it's unusually clean. I describe it to friends as a "mad computer scientist's laboratory" because of the proliferation of computers all over the place. In my work room, it isn't unusual to see a solderless breadboard with 1980s vintage integrated circuits on it. I have computers that are almost always apart. The "mad computer scientist" part was a play on the stereotypical "mad scientist" with the Van Der Graff generators with electrical sparks flying around, knife switches, and a brain in a jar, complete with a scientist with an almost sinister laugh. I am, by schooling and profession, a computer scientist, with some seemingly crazy ("mad") ideas sometimes. That leads to the second play on words with the word "mad" meaning "angry." Reading what I've written here has probably led many of you to see this interpretation of "mad" rather than the "crazy" one. I tend to be thought of as a glass-half-empty kind of person, and as such my outlook is not always the most optimistic. According to Wikipedia, Buddhism defines anger as, "being unable to bear the object, or the intention to cause harm to the object." In my case, it is most definitely the former. My anger comes primarily from frustration, as I fail to see how seemingly intelligent people make such non-intelligent decisions. Some people would say that I have my own vision of how the world should be, and that I refuse to accept the world as it is. That assessment may be correct, actually. We all know that people who are living in their own worlds are crazy, right? Mad = crazy. So we have come full-circle on the definition of "mad."

In actuality I'm probably a little of all these definitions. The eccentric, scientific type. Frustrated, and filled with anger. Crazy, trying to adapt to a world that frustrates me. Among all of these things I still feel that there has to be some good out there, and there usually is. Why it is so difficult to find is a mystery.

This is kind of the lead-in to a less pleasant discussion, brought on by bad drivers, bad politicians, and bad relationship opportunities. Maybe I will just title the posting, "Bad."

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Election Information

As I do every year in-person, I'd like to recommend the League of Women Voters - Austin Area web site and their voters guide as an excellent reference for Austin, TX-area residents during this election period.

I personally view their guide before every election and have been very pleased with its non-partisan information and insight on some of the issues. It is extremely difficult to cut through all the mudslinging and empty promises we hear from the candidates. The LWV has always done a great job of helping to get right to the issues at hand and provide responses from the candidates. In the case of the Austin Area LWV, they also provide clear, simple-to-understand information about how to vote in Texas.

My thanks, as always, to the LWV for maintaining this most excellent resource.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Keep Austin's Word - NOT!

Dear Mayor Will Wynn-

Please stop sending "Keep Austin's Word" propaganda to my home. I find it extremely offensive that your group would go so far as to cause confusion with the popular "Keep Austin Weird" campaign, I disagree with your group's position on Proposition 2, and at this point I am not prepared to change my position.

As an Austin taxpayer and someone who lives in a neighborhood around The Domain (and Arbor Walk), I am appalled that the very people who were supposed to be representing me - one of the people of this city - would be so foolish to have attempted such blatently poor deals with regard to this project. It is obvious from the outcome of these developments that at no time were the people living in the surrounding communities considered. Traffic on Duval Rd. has increased substantially since the increased development in and around The Domain (the former IBM property) has taken place. It is difficult to get into and out of my subdivision as a result. The traffic into and out of these shopping areas (The Domain and Arbor Walk) is poorly planned, resulting in hazardous conditions for both those who want to patronize the retail stores in these shopping centers and the people (such as myself) who work in this area. The city council has been downright negligent in allowing this development without the proper planning in advance, and one has to wonder what "incentives" the council has received in return for allowing this to continue unchecked.

In addition to the traffic and neighborhood impact, many of the stores that were located in The Arboretum and nearby retail space have, for whatever reason, abandoned this space to relocate to these new spaces. Therefore, The Domain has created no new jobs nor has it attracted the kind of retail business that makes Austin unique. We will now be left with many vacant or near-vacant stores in The Arboretum area, to likely suffer a similar fate to what is being seen with Northcross Mall.

I am not entirely sure what deals our City Council has made with the people who have developed The Domain and Arbor Walk on our behalf, but as far as I am concerned it is not in-line with the kind of development that the people in Austin want to see. If you want to provide funding to the developers of The Domain, then you are welcome to privately fund this development. As far as funding it with incentives that directly impact the taxpayers of this City, I wholeheartedly oppose this. It is not me who has to explain to the developers of The Domain why the City would back-out of "its agreements," it is you who needs to explain to all of us why the City government failed its constituents in allowing this kind of development and incentive program to occur to begin with. That was neither honest nor fair to Austin and the people who live and work here.

I understand the positive financial impact such development has for both the City and the areas being developed. I agree that upscale shopping in northwest Austin will maintain or increase property values. There is also tax revenue and other benefits that occur coincident with development such as this. However, for the people who are living here for the long-haul, these benefits do not outweigh the costs. Businesses used to favor Austin because of its low cost-of-living, unique character, and proximity to outstanding college graduates. The perceived necessity for financial incentives to attract business here is a result of steadily losing those features and a failure to address the larger problems we are facing.

I respectfully disagree with the comments made by you and your political action committee, and will support Proposition 2 by voting in favor of it. Fix the old retail property - don't give incentives (at taxpayer expense) to develop new ones.

To my non-Austin readers: My apologies for this lengthy posting that seemingly is not at all applicable to your situation. In reality, every city in the USA is having this kind of problem in one form or another. It is time to put a stop to this kind of taxpayer-funded "growth" and start looking at ways of truly improving our communities.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Time Warner Subscriber Agreement

Time Warner customers take note: Time Warner Cable has updated its residential subscriber agreement. Among its clauses, pay particular attention to item #13, "Consent to Phone and Email Contact." In short, it says that Time Warner can telemarket to you or spam you using any phone numbers or e-mail addresses you've ever provided to them. The only way you can stop them is to call or write your local office.

The agreement is riddled with attorney-produced clauses and restrictions that anyone in their right mind would burn along with the service ... except, try to get Internet or TV service from anyone else who doesn't burden their customers with this shit.

It deeply saddens me that any company would treat their customers in this manner. It saddens me even deeper that so many are doing it nowadays. Shame on you all...

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Just a post before I go (to sleep)

Smokey (my cat, better known as the face I've decided to show on blogger) did, indeed, have his vet appointment on Monday, and did spend the afternoon at the office with me. He actually did pretty well at the office for the first couple of hours, happily greeting people as they stopped-in. During the last hour he really wanted to go exploring, and that wouldn't have gone over very well with some of the people who run the place. I did make him a little paper replica of the security badges we have, and put his name and photo on it. The security guards found it amusing and joked about how he should be sure to scan his badge as he enters the facility. The group responsible for our holiday open house slide show took Smokey's picture with his little badge and he'll probably end up in said slide show come December. I spent some time pondering whether or not Smokey would actually get more work done than a certain problem employee...

In any case Smokey's reason for seeing the vet was his mysterious problem with his rear legs right before leaving on vacation a little over a month ago, and he seems to have lost a lot of weight and isn't eating enough. Long story short, it still isn't completely apparent whether or not he had a small stroke or has arthritis as far as his legs go. He did lose a pound in the last month, which is a lot. His kidney values are elevated but staying consistent with their last ones. His thyroid, however, is again a bit on the high side, which would account for his weight loss and stomach upset. So once again we're adjusting his thyroid medicine a bit and he has some medicine that will help soothe his stomach a bit. The things I do for my cat.

I have had little conversation with my online romantic interest so far this week. What little I did have has sent-up all kinds of serious warning signals, and I am most certain that a meeting in person this week will not happen. That being said, I therefore seriously doubt that this is going to go anywhere. I have also concluded that the sure-fire way to jinx a romance with anyone is to start telling my friends about it. I think for the next person I'm interested in (if there is one) I won't say anything until the day before the wedding. I would like to emphasize that "if there is one" parenthetical comment in the previous sentence. To be honest, this whole romantic partner thing is starting to become plain annoying. I realize this is a sick thought, but it has crossed my mind that maybe a good software development project would be to create a virtual girlfriend using artificial intelligence techniques. Mix-in a little robotics and... Okay, okay, yes, I know, this whole topic is a bad idea to even discuss. The fact that I have even thought about it expresses my level of frustration with the whole subject. When I start feeling like this, I very seriously question why in heck I want to be with someone in the first place. When I figure it out I'll let you know.

So much for getting to sleep early tonight.

I did take a look at the source code to Rockbox tonight also. I see the problem with the crossfade stuff that I felt wasn't working correctly. I'm trying to figure out whether to try fixing it myself or reporting it as a bug (or both, I guess).

Anyway, that's all. Time for bed.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

A Cold Day In Hell

I'm not sure I really want to write anything here tonight, but it has been a while and I already have two recent posts that I have purposely not posted. I look back at them and, while there is something of value there, I'm not sure they express my feelings as accurately as I'd like.

I just got done watching the DVR'd espisode of 20/20 from Friday night. This is the first time in a while that I've really had to wonder what drugs the people at ABC News were taking the day they put that episode/edition together. Message to ABC News: Britney Spears is not news. I know this may come as a complete shock to some people out there, but it's true. Bimbos singing to synthesizers is so 80s. Make it stop, please. For heaven's sake, don't put her on an otherwise-respectable TV news program. I was going to call Britney talentless, but that would have been a lie. It does actually look like she can act, and I'll hand that to her. Perhaps she should pursue that talent as opposed to making "music" videos and trying to be a parent. We'll see how many new readers of this blog I end-up with since, according to the Guiness Book of World Records according to 20/20, Britney is allegedly one of the most searched people on the web. That by itself is rather scary.

The other blunder 20/20 did this week was with the mortgage crisis. They put someone on who said, quite brilliantly, that some people's mortgage problems were their own darn fault, that they were living beyond their means. They (20/20) then immediately switched to a couple who was paying for their house just fine until family medical issues and some other personal problems put them into financial hot water. NO NO NO NO NO! THIS IS NOT PART OF THE MORTGAGE CRISIS AS IT IS RIGHT NOW! To compare a situation like that to the situation that is the subject of the bail-out is so very very wrong. In fact, that specific example is more a symptom of the lack of affordable health care than the current "financial crisis." The problem is that 20/20 isn't the only one who doesn't seem to get it. Occasionally I listen to Rush Limbaugh when I feel like hearing what it sounds like for shit to come out of someone's mouth instead of out of their ass. He said on his radio program the other day (I am paraphrasing, of course) that to imply that this problem was (at least partially) due to people living beyond their means was completely un-American, that people living beyond their means is the kind of risk taking that has helped to build the wealth that has made this country great. I continued to listen, because I thought for sure that this was just one of his sarcastic jokes until I realized he was serious. Dittoheads, it is not, I repeat NOT, a good idea to live beyond your means. Of all people, Rush should realize that what made this country great was that hard working individuals set reasonable goals and worked hard toward making them a reality. Was there any risk involved? In some cases, sure. However, owning a BMW and an expensive home on credit you can barely repay or neglecting your family or other responsiblities to get these things is just plain irresponsible. To expect that the government (read: us) will bail-out people who took on a mortgage without any contingency plan is ridiculous. I love it when people talk about "The American Dream" as though everyone deserves to have it. I believe the word "dream" implies that it's not a guarantee or an entitlement, it's more like a goal.

I was, as usual, quite impressed with John Stossel's segment on people voting, and I look forward to his politically-incorrect politics segment next (this?) week. For those who didn't see the program, John was essentially saying that people who have no idea how the basic functioning of the government in this country works should stay home and not vote, since they have no idea what they're really voting for. It's a very interesting idea. What I think both John and I would really like to see is for people to educate themselves on the real issues and ideas that the candidates are presenting, the pros and cons of those positions, and how acting on those will affect the future of the country as a whole, prior to voting. Not voting should be a last resort. I would like to correct one comment though: It was asked (rhetorically) if we should only allow the educated to vote. In reality, the electoral college for determining the president was established for just this reason. The people vote for the electors for a particular presidential candidate with the idea that the elector, if deemed necessary, could vote for a different candidate based on their education and knowledge of the issues (see Wikipedia for a nice discussion of this). For you folks who were all pissed off about the Bush/Gore election and the electoral college, perhaps you should read this first. I agree we all got a bad president, but it wasn't the electoral college system that was the problem.

So aside from watching the United States' economy going all to hell and 20/20, I admit there have been other goings-on in my life.

I have been spending more time than I should in on-line chat sessions with a woman who I admit has caught my romantic attention. I haven't really "chatted" online since about 14 years ago when I spent a lot of time on IRC in chat rooms talking about everything from country music performers to emotional problems. To say that online chat is not a primary means of communication for me these days would be an understatement. Anyway, I really enjoy conversing with her, and would really like to meet her in person (she lives around here, it's not like she's halfway across the country). Alas, she continues to resist such suggestions, and I am beginning to grow quite tired of this. Obviously there is something I see in her that has made me want to continue discussion despite the resistance to an in-person meeting. She has three cats, and really cares about them. She's smart. She's good-looking. We're both in the same age-bracket. We're both kind of introverts. I've given her the benefit of the doubt because she has been trying to work through some personal issues. However, I think it's time to put her on "double-secret probation" and if she fails to come up with a good reason by the end of this week why she won't let me buy her lunch so we can talk in person rather than on the computer, I think I'm going to call this yet another failed attempt at romance and move-on. Less foolish people than I would probably have already concluded that.

I put my telephone system changes into place on the production server this weekend. While I like the concept I came up with (explained in a previous blog entry) it seems a little fragile right now. I'm hoping that I feel more confident with what I did as time goes on. I will reassure myself by saying that there is no way to account for every possible thing when developing software until it gets some testing with real data. The only way to do that is to use it, in this case.

I purchased a SanDisk Sansa E280 MP3 player from woot and it came yesterday. I installed Rockbox onto it the same night, and that installed without incident. Rockbox is an open source replacement for the original software that comes on some of the little MP3 players out there. It enables the devices to handle more varied media file formats, and the user interface is generally better. It seems to have some little glitches in it and I may start looking at the source code to see if I can correct some of them. The Sansa E280 also has a FM tuner in it, and that seems to work as well, although I hardly listen to the radio these days. I admit that this was kind of an impulse purchase that I don't have a specific use in mind for. I wanted to try one of them out and see what it was like, and the Sansa's price was right.

Well, it looks like time to wrap-up for the night and get some much needed sleep. My cat needs to go to the vet tomorrow afternoon (at 4:30, around rush-hour) so I'm going to pick him up at lunch and keep him at work for the afternoon so I don't have to go home and go all the way back in the opposite direction during rush hour. That whole thing should be interesting...

Hopefully things will start looking up on all fronts. I'm kind of tired of being jacked-around by so many different people (or sets of people). Things have to get better.

Friday, October 3, 2008

I'm a PC

I'm a PC, and I run Linux.

What's a PC? PC is an abbreviation for Personal Computer. A PC is a personal computer.

Technically speaking, the Macintosh is also a PC. It's an Apple architecture PC with an Intel or PowerPC processor. Microsoft operating systems run on IBM architecture PCs with Intel or AMD processors.

Linux runs on Apple and IBM architecture PCs, and is free.

So when you see Apple's and Microsoft's propagandavertisements, what they're really trying to prove is which operating system is better - not whether an Apple or IBM PC architecture is better.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Bridge to Terabithia

Tonight I saw "Bridge to Terabithia" - a Disney tear-jerker (2007) that actually is pretty good. I'm not sure that I would have opted for the sad twist in the plot (being purposely vague to not ruin this for someone who hasn't already seen the movie), but unfortunately it was probably the best way to transition the storyline.

While the events that happened in the imaginary land of Terabithia were a bit stretched in real life (even for a child's imagination), what moved me most were the interactions between Jess and Leslie. Having been the kid in school that everyone picked-on and who's interests were different from all the other kids and quite foreign to even my parents, the friendship that developed in the film was all too real. I recall trying to find that same kind of friendship, but unfortunately it never really materialized. Whether that only occurs in Hollywood or if it actually happens in real life is a mystery. You could see that the unique talents of both Jess and Leslie were of two people who were ahead of their time. It's hard for people nowadays to understand that having a passion for electronics (and later computers) was not a cool thing growing up in the late 1960s through the 1970s. Boys of that time were supposed to be into sports and that kind of thing. If my life were made into a movie the audience would have known by the mid 1970s that I was destined to build a telephone system as an adult, even though it wasn't obvious to the characters in the story at the time.

I don't think that anyone who has this kind of passion ever thinks about the world the same as everyone else does. To open one's mind to that extent, deriving a deep sense of gratification from something that nobody else around seemingly can understand, is a personality trait and not simply reserved for a specific skill. Take note of Leslie's comments (in the movie) when she had the discussion about religion. Call it a blessing, a curse, or a little of both, but to have a truly open mind you have to question everything around you, including what most people accept on faith.

Even though I've mentioned this to several people, I doubt anyone really took notice when I said that The Seekers' "A World Of Our Own" was a favorite song of mine. Anyone watching "Bridge to Terabithia" then listening to that song will realize what it is I imagine when I hear it. I'm not sure whether or not the person who wrote "A World Of Our Own" intended it that way, or if they were just opting for a sappy love song, but the former is how I always heard it.

"Bridge To Terabithia" is not one of those movies that I could watch again and again, but I definitely thought it was good, touching, and recommend it as a movie worth seeing.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Sick of being sick

As you've probably noticed, the postings kind of dropped off soon after the pizza posting. There was a reason for that...

Right before going away on vacation, I did something that my back didn't like. I can't go into any further detail because I don't have any idea what I did to upset it, the doctor can't figure it out, and my back won't tell me why it decided to give me problems. It got better before I left, so I felt, "Great! So much for that!"

About 2 days into my trip to NY, my back pain decided to return with a vengeance. Two days into what was supposed to be a relaxing time -- that is, something for me to unwind and forget about everything for a while. For the duration of my so-called "vacation" my upper back was in the most excruciating pain I have ever felt (large quantities of ibuprofen just took the edge off the pain). It has finally, as of a couple of days ago, started to get better. Yes, of course I went back to the doctor, and he was about as clueless about it as before I went away.

To add insult to injury - or should I say "injury to injury" - this past Wednesday afternoon (that's about 4 days ago) I came down with the bug they show in the NyQuil commercial - you know, the "coughing, sneezing, stuffy head, congested chest, perpetually tired but can't sleep, but can't think straight to do anything useful because you feel tired" bug. There is no one word illness that defines this bug (and "sucks" doesn't qualify as a medical term in this context). I've been off work since Thursday afternoon, and am missing at least a couple of activities with friends. On the 4th day of said life-sucking bug, I am just beginning to feel a little better. Maybe better enough to return to work on Monday. Whoopie.

Allow me to add one additional detail and that is that the pain in my back has somehow extended to my chest, so every time I cough (or laugh, sneeze, or blow my nose) my chest hurts. So I have been surviving on a cocktail of ibuprofen and pseudoephedrine (old fashioned Sudafed) and topping it with whatever medication seems to be around that may further ease the symptom of the day. For whatever reason, I have not ventured out to the supermarket to see if NyQuil actually works the way they say.

I was joking with a friend at work right before effectively being out for 2 days saying, "This must be God's revenge for all the stuff I wrote in my blog." Then I laughed, and my chest hurt.

In reality, I do believe my number was up - I have been overall pretty healthy. It has been a while since the last time I've had a really had a whammy like this one. Hopefully I've met my quota for feeling miserable for a while.

So this is why I haven't written much and maybe that's a good thing. Between the back and the "life sucking bug," I haven't had much of an opportunity to experience anything really wonderful. However, I do have one piece of information to pass along: If you're home sick, and TV becomes unbearable, try Pogo (http://www.pogo.com/). It's an online game site and they have a whole bunch of different games you can play by yourself or with others (like Scrabble, solitaire, blackjack, etc.). Most of the games use Java rather than Flash, so they work on just about any computer/OS.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Fun quote

"[I'd like to]...scream over the loud speaker, mounted securely on the roof of my car...expressing loudly...Hey, you in the multicolored vehicle...'Your proctologist called, they found your head!'"

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

PizzaPost

Well, here I am on Long Island for the week visiting family. An extremely important part of this trip has been to go to Fratelli Pizzeria near my parents' house. In my opinion the best pizza...anywhere. I have been asked by several friends to include photos of the pizza again, and so here they are.

I will mention that unfortunately this time the pizza was not quite as good as it usually is. The cheese was a bit too oily/fluid and the crust wasn't quite thick enough. Like anything done by human beings, though, the folks at Fratelli's are entitiled to a mistake once in a while. In general, the pizza is outstanding and it's what I think about when I think "New York Pizza."

I've gotten a comment or two from people who asked, "What's all this fuss about New York-style pizza?" I have also been asked why I am so enamored with Fratelli's pizza. So here is a list of the things that I consider paramount to a good pizza (in no particular order):
  1. Plenty of cheese: While a few pizzerias in Texas come very close to having a good pizza, much of the time they skimp on the cheese. If there isn't enough cheese, you get something that tastes kind of like cardboard with tomato sauce on it. Fratelli's never skimps on the cheese. The pizza in the photos is a standard cheese pizza (not "extra cheese").
  2. Proper crust thickness: Many people equate NY Pizza with "thin crust," and by "thin crust" they think "paper thin." That's not correct. While the pizza crust is thin, it is important to stretch the dough correctly. The proper crust consistency for the main part of the pizza should be that the bottom is completely cooked (ie. semi-hard), and then there is about an eighth to a quarter inch of softer dough above it. That dough is firm enough to resist the sauce (ie. it doesn't saturate the dough and make the pizza soggy), but is soft enough to give the crust some consistency. The proper yeast and rise is probably what causes this as you'll see very small air pockets here.
  3. Proper crust consistency: The dough for the crust is made with yeast, and some larger air bubbles should form in the dough. Overall it is a dryish, floury dough. Most thin pizza doughs are like this except maybe Pizza Hut.
  4. The sauce should have the proper taste and spice. The tomato sauce used for pizza has a good deal more oregano and thyme than Italian pasta sauce. It has a bit of a sweet flavor, while at the same time having the signature flavor from the oregano.
  5. The right cheese: I don't know exactly what kind of cheese or blends of cheese they use, but it has to have at least a good quality mozzarella cheese. A friend of mine says that using whole milk mozzarella cheese (rather than part-skim) is key. That may be true. What I do know is that the wrong cheese will make the pizza cheese very oily and/or watery and may not melt properly. The cheese browning a bit on top is what gives a good flavor as well.
  6. Toppings: The pizza should stand on its own without any additional toppings. However, pineapple, Canadian bacon, jalapenos, broccoli, and any other California toppings have no business on top of a thin crust pizza. Proper pizza toppings are one or more of pepperoni, Italian sausage, onion, mushrooms, anchovies, meat ball slices, maybe green pepper, and maybe black olives. Again, a good pizza stands on its own without toppings.
Note that while I am particular to NY-style pizza, that is not to say that a good Chicago deep-dish pizza doesn't have merit too. In fact, I believe finding a good Chicago-style pizza outside Chicago is probably as hard as finding a good NY-style pizza outside of certain parts of NY.

So there you have it...my word on pizza.

Monday, August 25, 2008

My New Policy

To The Telecommunications Companies:

Effective immediately any business that I do business with will need to pay a $15 per month service fee. I call this a Customer Fee and it is a fee that I charge businesses for the privilege of having me as a customer that pays his bills on time, consistently. This fee can go up or down every month depending on how much I have to pay telecommunications carriers in fees above and beyond the posted price for service. If the telecommunications carrier (cable TV, Internet, telephone company, cellular phone company) chooses to indicate on their web site the actual price for their service, before the standard state & local sales tax, and consistently charge that each month with occasional, publicized well in advance, nominal increases for inflation (or even decreases), then I will waive my Customer Fee accordingly.

Fee is based on charges that telecommunications carriers charge and are not federally-mandated fees, and can vary periodically depending on the phase of the moon and the price of pizza for that month. Doing business with me constitutes acceptance to my Terms and Conditions, listed somewhere deep inside my blog (you have to search for it) and it contains so much legalese you'll never be able to understand it anyway. Just figure that when you do business with me, you've given-up all your rights to a jury trial and you are bound to arbitration, and you'll need to come to my hometown for the arbitration. Basically if you don't pay my fee all kinds of bad things will happen, including ruining your credit rating. You are bound to do business with me for a two (2) year period. If you fail to complete your two-year term, then you agree to pay me a one-time EARLY TERMINATION fee of $250. Note that this is a fee and not a penalty (haha ... yeah, really) and is to reimburse me for liquidated damages (which is another word for sour grapes). Even though I've bound you to a two year term, I can cancel this agreement at any time without penalty, because I can.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

More Silly Poems

After I entered the funny Woot poem into the blog, I realized I had some other silly writings from my past to pass along.

This one probably won't seem as silly as it does to electronic enthusiasts. I'll give it a go anyway. It was originally thought-up by someone I knew in third grade...
One electric day in the bright of the light
Two burned-out capacitors got up to fight.
Back-to-back they soldered each other
Until there was no more rosin core.

If you don't believe me,
Ask the dead speaker.
He heard it all.

This one was done by a good friend of mine in high school. The story goes like this: We made Nitrogen Tri-Iodide after school with the science teacher. NI3 is a relatively mild explosive, and we had heard stories about it but didn't know too many specifics about how it worked or what to expect. So we made a batch of it up and it's wet and was quite unimpressive. This friend of mine (we'll just call him "H") decided to put some wet NI3 in a piece of filter paper and bring it home with him. The next morning, H met me at the tree as usual on the way to school and sang the following song, done to the tune of Oh Little Town Of Bethlehem:
Oh nitrogen tri-iodide
It's stronger than you think.
It blows up oh so easily
It leaves no trace or stink.

Last night I took the sample
That I had in my room.
I gave it just a little tap
And that damn stuff went **BOOM**.

To complete the story, H then proceeded to tell me how his ears were still ringing from the explosion. When his parents heard it, they asked him what he was doing in his bedroom. He told his parents he was playing with balloons and one popped. Heh...yeah, right. When we did finally get to school and met the science teacher, he put the NI3 into the sink in the science prep office, and was getting ready to drop the drain plug onto the explosive. H and I walked away and held our hands on our ears. The science teacher says, "What are you guys afraid of? Yesterday you said you didn't think it would work!" and then proceeded to drop the stopper. Following the loud **BOOM** and the room filling with iodine gas, a couple of teachers ran into the room thinking the three of us finally blew ourselves up (our science teacher was kind of known for being a bit unusual). Nobody was hurt, but we did learn about unstable nitrogen-based compounds. Nitroglycerin is kind of like NI3 in many ways.

One more factoid about NI3: If you've ever watched "Brainiac: Science Abuse" (a silly British science show) and wondered what the exploding paste was, now you know...