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.