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?