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 Recent News  
September 19, 2010

Random thought on the Droid X in no particular order

My phone says DROID every time there's a system message. That's the first thing that needs to go.

Some recurring tasks are unnecessarily difficult. Many of the applications are more cute than useful. In particular, the email app isn't equipped to handle the massive email volume of a former crackberry user.

The built-in "social network" app is flashy and cute, but not a substitute for the real thing. I ended up downloading Facebook for Android and using that instead.

Logmein Ignition works as advertised. Once you get used to the gestures, you... can remotely log into a Windows box and get work done. That big 854X480 display is sufficient to the task, which I couldn't do on a smaller phone.

I already miss push email. The phone polls every 10 minutes and I chafe at the delay. The Droid X supports push email, but the Exchange server has to support it, I guess.

At first look, it's possible to do a tremendous amount of customization to the look and feel. At second look, some things that are easy to do on the Blackberry are impossible on the Droid. For instance, hiding built-in apps you will never use.

I haven't had the phone long enough to speak to it's reliability, but it hasn't dropped a call yet, no matter how I hold it.

You *can* use arbitrary sounds as customized ringtones, but it's not obvious how. I had to read about it on the Droid forums.

Overall, there's too much "toy" aspect to the phone, but it does enough of the right things that I can incorporate it into my workflow.

V Cast Media Manager, which comes with the Droid, has some bizarre limitations. It won't "see" mp3 files unless they meet some precise set of specifications. Yet if you copy them directly to the Droid in mass storage mode, they work fine. I'm not exactly sure what problem the media manager app is supposed to solve.

Too bright! For some reason the brightness defaults to fixed and is really cranked up. Maybe store demo mode? Set to automatic. Also extends battery life.

On the lock screen, we knew that swiping right unlocks, but did you know that swip...ing left silences?

Essential apps to download: Beautiful Widgets, some kind of Memo app (I chose Memodroid), Photoshop Express, Facebook (the built-in app sucks), Google Sky, Bubble, and RealCalc.

The phone will turn off the screen when you hold it to your face for a call. This is on by default. What isn't, and should be, is that the phone will silence itself if you put it face down on the table. Be sure to turn that on. It's really useful in meetings.

The built-in "corporate sync" sucks. If you're coming from the Blackberry world, you will be severely disappointed. TouchDown from Nitrodesk, although not perfect, works well enough to be useful. It syncs all your Outlook stuff from Acti...vesync, not just your messages and calendar, and you can actually manage your messages instead of merely read them.

The included ringtones are very silly and are designed for the people who like their phones to play a merry melody or a Motorola commercial when they get a text. I uploaded some bell and buzzer sounds from the Janus Professional Sound Library to itunes, exported them to mp3, copied them to the SD card, and can now use them as ringtones. Wife's ringtone is the nuclear meltdown klaxon.

Other essential programs: Rings Extended (ringtone management), Compass, GPS Test. For amusement Hypnotoad (everyone loves hypnotoad!), Neko and Tricorder. If you remember Tricorder from the Palm Pilot days, this version is very spiffy and actually does useful things.

The Droid X is essentially a personal computer running an unfamiliar operating system. Getting the most out of it takes some work. Shannon helped me with a lot of the initial configuration.

Bottom line: Droid X has much coolness, but if y...our main use of a phone is mail, calendar, contacts, memos, tasks, AND your corporate Blackberry server is properly maintained, stick with Blackberry. Nobody does these things as well. I'm hoping Android gets better in these areas.

September 14, 2010

My Droid X has arrived. And it couldn't get here sooner. Administrators of the Blackberry corporate server were outsourced September 10, and approx 10:30 September 11, the BB corporate server went down and stayed down. No email for four days, and nobody to call. Going through severe crackberry withdrawal.

First order of business, configuring corporate sync. Surprisingly easy to get going, but surprisingly few things you can do with it. Reading email and checking appointments is about it. This is not going to work.

September 8, 2010

Well, I've gone to the dark side. On the strength of Shannon's experience with the Samsung Galaxy S, I've ordered an Android phone. The company offers Motorola products, so I should be getting a Droid X in the next couple of days.

It's not just having a shiny new toy. I have for years depended heavily on my smartphone. It's my second brain. (Think Ood from Doctor Who.) I went to Blackberry because their OS and push email were the most reliable out there. You pay a small penalty in not having the hottest hardware or software, but your email always arrives and the phone never spontaneously hangs or resets, and almost never drops a call. This has been true of the Tour for a long time.

But, lately I've had a couple of problems that have caused me to rethink my choice. I have eczema in my thumbs, and as a consequence the trackball frequently gets jammed, almost certainly with little flakes of skin off my thumb. This is not the fault of the trackball, and more modern BBs have a trackpad which probably wouldn't fail in this fashion, but it's enough of a problem that I needed to look at some kind of replacement phone.

Secondly, the biggest win for Blackberry, dead nuts reliable push email, has not been reliable lately. Not sure why. Blackberry Server technology is very mature, and their selling point is reliability. The issue may be human error, I'm not sure, but the upshot is that email has been failing regularly about once a week and it takes over 24 hours each time for the organization to reset whatever popped on the server and start email going again. That's one to two days out of each work week that I can't get my mail. This is intolerable. They don't call it Crackberry for nothing -- BB users are trained to expect instant email gratification and tend to get a mite testy when they don't get it.

So I tested whether I could get my work email on my daughter's phone via the exchange server, and it works just fine, thanks. It's not push email, but it polls often enough that I'm not very far behind in my correspondence, and besides, what good is push email if the damned server doesn't PUSH?

And so, I have a Droid X coming. I don't expect it to be the answer to all my Smartphone needs. Realistically, I expect it to have a completely different set of problems. But if I get email semi-regularly, and the phone rings reliably when I get a call, and it doesn't drop calls if I hold it in my left hand, and it doesn't spontaneously hang or reboot or need to be restarted daily, that will be enough for now.

August 3, 2010

I've gotten more used to the Galaxy's virtual keyboard on daughter's phone, now think I may be able to live with one. Moreover, Logmein, which I use a lot, has an Android client but not a Blackberry client. They had a BB client in development but apparently decided not to go forward with it. This adds motivation to look at Android.

July 30,2010

I've had the Blackberry Tour 9630 for 10 months now. During that time, the back has never fallen off of it's own accord, and the ringer has never failed to ring. In these two respects it is a worth replacement for the Bold 9000. If I had any complaint, it would be that the trackball malfunctions regularly, but that was the case with all Blackberry phones I've used so far, and may have more to do with my eczema than mechanical design choices.

That said, it looks like my next phone will need a non-mechanical pointing device. If I stay with BB, it'll probably be a Bold 9700 or 9650, which is basically the same phone with a trackpad instead of a trackball.

Earlier this week my daughter got a Samsung Galaxy S for her birthday. It's a great phone, more like a miniature Linux computer that happens to have phone capabilities, but I'm still not sure that virtual keyboards are for me. I'm more comfortable when I can feel the keys.

June 9, 2010

Happy birthday to me. I'm embarrassed not to have updated this in such a long time.

Windows Advanced Search is pants

I tried Windows Advanced Search, and Nosir, didn't like it. It consumes resources while it's indexing (which seems to be all day every day) and it never finds what I'm looking for. My workflow ends up being: click "search for files and folders" to bring up Advanced Search, scroll down, click on "search companion", wait for new window to load, and then search from there.

Yes, in theory, Search Companion is slower because it grinds through the disk instead of looking at a previously prepared index, but it will actually find what I'm looking for which is apparently not a feature of Advanced Search.

The only reason to have it on the machine is because the Outlook 2007 advanced search functions are greyed out if you don't have it installed.

I discovered today that the old search-by-field feature of Outlook is buried in 2007, but you need to know how to invoke it.

If you hold down ctl, shift and press "f", you will get a new window with the same features that you would get in the search toolbar if you had Advanced Search installed. It's a little more clumsy, (and has caused yet another sticky to be added to the yellow halo around my monitor) but it does work and you no longer have indexing going on while you're trying to work.

Really, with modern hardware, the difference in time between searching the physical folder and consulting an index isn't great enough that I absolutely needed the latter.

September 21, 2009

Blackberry 9630 has arrived. The transfer did not go smoothly -- I have to take it to a Verizon store to be reflashed -- but it will send and receive calls. I like the physical design -- this is the Bold done right.

September 16, 2009

Just ordered a Blackberry Tour 9630 to replace my Bold 9000. The clasp on the Bold has failed completely and now the only thing keeping the back on is a small strip of velcro I put on the inside. The ringer has also failed completely. This is my second Bold. The first Bold came with a defective clasp and the back wouldn't stay on at all.

This is the second time the ringer in this phone has failed. It appears to be inferior contacts between the circuit card and the speaker. When it failed the first time, I took it apart, gently bent up the contacts and put it back together, and it worked for awhile longer. But it's failed again and I'm not inclined to fix it again. What a piece of crap.

This is very disappointing, as the Bold's feature set is very appealing. It's completely unacceptable that Blackberry would allow this inferior design to reach market.

September 4, 2009

I was thinking about this after lunch. Remember when sound cards were really expensive and compatibility was really problematic? I remember paying $300 list for a sound card long ago only to have it obsoleted by Windows 95. (The vendor never developed native drivers for it.) Eventually sound cards became commodity items and now you get 5.1 digital on the motherboard.

Similarly, video cards used to be really spendy, over $300 for a good 2D board with a 3D addon. Then they became commodity items, and now nobody really talks about 2D/3D performance anymore, you get pretty good performance right on the motherboard, or really good performance if you want to spring for $100 or so and install a better card.

This is normal and expected. The cost of hardware comes down, due to economies of scale and better manufacturing techniques. Taking this argument to ridiculous extremes, the original AT was something like $10K, and now for $1K you can build a machine that's killer even by today's standards.

I'm wondering if there really is still a market for $300 operating systems. (Windows 7 Ultimate full version, for the sake of this argument.) Back in the old days, when PCs were on the steep end of the curve, there really were huge changes being made, and you'd expect that huge engineering costs would need to be recouped. But now? A few tweaks on the ui, a little more native driver support, and better support for DirectX 10, which (dunno about you) I will probably never need.

It seems like we're being asked to pay ever increasing prices for smaller and smaller improvements, which is counter to the usual paradigm. Economy of scale? They have frakkin' economy of scale -- most of the known universe is running their OS. Engineering costs? Seems unlikely, unless software engineers are independently wealthy these days.

I guess I'm puzzled why we're still paying steep-curve prices when we're clearly on the flat end of the curve.

Given current trends, I can see a time when the computer will be a free prize inside the Windows box, like a crackerjack toy. And Windows will cost as much as a car.

September 3, 2009

Update on Windows 7: With the help of a Windows wizard at work, we've managed to solve the file sharing problem. That leaves only mkv containers and S/PDIF out.

August 30, 2009

I took the plunge today, installed Windows 7 Ultimate on the Media Center. So far, enough works that I can get by. It'll play DVDs and videos, no music yet, and no off-air TV (missing a driver). The digital sound doesn't work either. Will write up an article once I have everything working.

It's interesting that Windows 7 comes with a DVD decoder. Usually you have to buy one or use the one that's bundled with your DVD drive.

Update: The memory card reader is also not working -- it shows up as an unknown device. I looked up the part number -- it's made by Sony. They list no driver for it.

Update: The TV card is working. I ran Windows Update again after installing the card, and lo and behold, there's a driver for it in optional hardware updates. Installed that, ran the live tv setup and it all worked.

Despite being internal, the memory card reader is a USB device. Lacking another solution, I tried unplugging and plugging the reader while the system was powered up, and Windows discovered it and loaded the proper driver. A little weird it wouldn't do that on boot.

Re-installed Spore, it appears to work. I copied the music over and installed itunes. It's behaving weirdly. I may have to delete it's database and have it rediscover all the music.

I haven't done objective measurements, but it appears that hard drive access is much faster. The new drive is SATA3, which may have something to do with it, but I also seem to remember that XP didn't really support full SATA speeds, but ran SATA disks in some kind of ATA compatibility mode. Whatever the reason, file transfers go amazingly fast.

It wasn't necessary to install the ASUS motherboard drivers -- Windows 7 discovered everything, including the dual core cpu and all the motherboard resources.

More here.

August 12, 2009

A new article in PDA catagory, The Blackberry Owner's Survival Guide.

August 8, 2009

Upgraded the server to Fedora Core 11, which promptly borked the websites, again. After fixing the Apache conf file, I discovered that I had lost the ability to add new content to the websites. Apparently something (probably PHP) was also upgraded, which triggered some flaw in the code. I discovered that a different geeklog "theme" worked, so copied some files from that theme into this one and solved the problem, for now.

July 31, 2009

We return our Verizon FIOS DVR

I try not to be a complainer, I really do. So when something doesn't work right, or it doesn't work as advertised, if there's an option to just quietly return it or turn it off, I'm all for that.

Which brings us to Verizon FIOS TV. We switched to that at the beginning of 2009, and got the DVR feature because it was free for the first 3 months and it sounded cool.

The DVR is based on a Motorola QIP6416-2 set top box. It does standard HD DVR stuff, and programs recorded on the DVR can be viewed on the other, conventional HD set top box. It works adequately enough, except for the occasional video glitch (especially if you're watching recorded video from the other set top) and occasional missed program.

But I called and made preparations to return it yesterday, and minor video glitches were not the reason.

Reason one: The disk space is WAY too small. If you ever used a TIVO, you'll feel stifled by the amount of program space you have on this box. Wife used it to "tape" two soaps, and daughter to record three sitcoms a week, and that's all it would hold. Per week. If you didn't get around to seeing it, too bad, it's been recorded over.

The box has USB ports, and the Motorola specs seem to indicate that it will support external storage, but there's a caveat that whether external storage is enabled depends on your carrier, and apparently Verizon does not allow that feature. So, what you have is what you have, and there's nothing you can do about it.

Reason two: The service is WAY too expensive. For just the rental on the DVR option, at today's prices, I could buy a new VCR every month, and a new TIVO box every four months. For the price, and especially considering the paltry storage space, the DVR is just not worth it. It sounds cool, but unless you have low expectations and money to burn, don't bother with it.

When I called Verizon, they said there was a promotion going on right now and I could keep the box for an additional 3 months free and then decide if I was going to keep it. I said no. Why? Because in 3 months I'd forget, and then I'd be paying the DVR surcharge again, and I don't want to throw good money after bad. So back it goes. C'mon, Verizon, DVRs are commodity items these days, and disk is dirt cheap. Provide a reasonable service at a reasonable price and I'll be glad to sign up. But as it is, no.

July 5, 2009

Recovering lost files from flash memory

First of all, it's my own fault. I can say that the machine was running slower than usual and blame it on a window focus lag, but in actual fact I was trying to do too many things at once, cleaning up some old files while importing new photographs from the recent July 4th celebration, and deleted the new files instead of the old. No, they didn't go into Recycle Bin, I checked.

So after the sick feeling had passed, I remembered an article on recovering files from flash memory (in this case a Compact Flash device from my Nikon) and started doing research rather than just sitting there fuming.

I found that there are a bazillion hits on "recovering files from compact flash" and they all lead to one of eight or nine products, most of which advertise as "free file recovery" but are actually free downloads of nonfunctional demos. This is hostageware, where a product will waste your time and energy and dangle the finished product in front of your nose and demand money. Usually $40 to $60 in this case.

After a little more research, I found that the higher end Sandisk cards and readers include a recovery program. I didn't happen to have one, but it wouldn't have hurt too much to buy a fast CF card for the D700 in order to get the recovery software. I mean, I could still use the card.

But that turned out not to be necessary. I found this article:

How to recover deleted files for free

...which reviewed four free programs to accomplish this task. I chose "Smart Data Recovery" and it's recovering my files as I write.

...it just finished, and all my photos are back. Whew!

June 9, 2009 Happy birthday to me.

We drop XM

Remember those first XM commercials? With B.B. King, David Bowie, and various orchestral instruments falling out of the sky? Crystal-clear music from space, they said, or words to that effect. So, after 2 years with the service, how does it shape up?

Well, it is crystal clear, for certain values of "crystal clear". Like any digital signal (your HDTV signals, for instance) it's either there, or it's not. There is no in-between, noisy, garbled sound. The level of background noise is very low.

But in terms of fidelity, XM sucks. There's really no other word for it. Strictly AM quality on most rock stations, although the classical stations sound a little better.

Switching from XM to FM to iPod in the truck, even my elderly ears hear a significant difference. FM (not HD FM, the regular analog kind) has more stereo separation, more presence, and better frequency response than XM, at the same volume and playing the same type of music. And FM isn't that good -- the iPod blows it away, even on the car speakers.

The XM music channels (Deep tracks, the Loft, the Blend, Vinyl) are just plain unpleasant to listen to. Fiddling with the car equalizer to try to get back some of the frequency response didn't accomplish much -- there's just no information to recover. Bass drums go "tick tick tick" instead of "boom boom boom".

Spoken channels -- the comedy channels, news, the talk and sports channels -- sound fine. After awhile I found myself listening to only three channels -- blue collar comedy, laugh usa, and headline news. This really isn't worth the cost of the hardware and subscription.

Well, the hardware can't be returned, but we don't have to keep paying for this stuff. Off it goes, and back I go to FM. Did you miss me?

Interestingly, some research into the various XM and Sirius forums, people seemed to be divided sharply into two groups: The group who thinks XM sound quality is dismal, and the group calling the first group lying bastards. There doesn't seem to be any rational discussion on why the sound quality might be wanting and what might be done about it.

I'm not an expert, but I was an engineer specializing in signal processing in a previous life, and it seems to me that the signals suffer from overcompression. Given that the satellites have only so much bandwidth, this implies that the only practical solution is to drop a couple dozen channels and allocate more bandwidth to the survivors.

We saw similar issues back when we had DirecTV. Sports were allocated lots of bandwidth, and looked really good. The less profitable channels, kids channels, for instance, got much less bandwidth and had so many artifacts that they were nearly unwatchable.

So, I strongly suspect the issue with XM is a money vs quality issue, with more stations having more value than higher quality stations, which is probably driven by marketing and not engineering. Apparently, so far, enough people can live with the current level of quality that it pays for XM to keep a broad lineup at the expense of fidelity.

Whatever the reason, I can't make myself listen to it, so will have to stick with local FM and iPod. If something changes later, great. In the meantime, XM is not worth the cost.

March 31, 2009

New article in PDA: What's on my blackberry.

March 30, 2009

All this talk about GM and Chrysler government bail-outs, incentives and warranty insurance makes me want to go out and buy a Ford.

March 13, 2009

I've migrated the websites to a faster server. This gave me the opportunity to migrate the base OS from Fedora Core 4 to Core 10, something I'd intended to do for... well it seems like forever. I had upgraded Geeklog to a version that works with PHP5 late in 2006, but with one thing and another never finished the upgrade. It's just as well, because a better opportunity eventually presented itself with VMWare's free, bare-metal virtualizer, ESXi. (Available in the download section at www.vmware.com.)

ESXi is easy to install (it's only 60 Mbytes) and easy to manage. There is a conversion program that will migrate an OS running on physical hardware to a virtual instance running on ESXi. Sadly, although it works fine for Windows it doesn't, as of this writing, work for Linux, so I had to install the OS by hand and migrate the bits over. This was easier than I thought. I do nightly dumps of the database, which made trivial the act of populating MySQL with the account information and CMS data from the old machine. I had previously done work on the CMS code to make it hostname-ambivalent, so only had to copy over the code and images and adjust permissions.

There was some migration problems with http until I realized that Apache 2.2 doesn't need the module declarations that 2.0 did. I essentially pasted the virtual host section of the old http.conf onto the new ones, adjusted a couple of values, and it all worked. Surprisingly little effort overall.

The next project is to clone this instance and copy it to another server for development work. There's a new version of Geeklog I would like to try.

Feb 5, 2009

I give the computer game Warcraft a try, with appalling results.

Jan 23, 2009

My used Treo 680, acquired when my 650 gave up the ghost, has also failed. It was time for something new. So with sadness, I dump my Treo for a Blackberry Bold 9000.

Another article in Thoughts:

Broadband for everyone

I'm told that the new President wants everyone to have broadband access to the Internet. Is this really a good idea?

January 8, 2009

Happy New Year.

A new article in Thoughts:

Punishing loyalty: On the curious practice of forcing loyal customers to pay the highest prices

December 18, 2008

A continuation of the upgrade process, wherein things get ugly.

Windows Media Center part 5: Upgrade Madness

October 31, 2008

Another chapter in the Media Center saga.

Windows Media Center part 4: Time for an upgrade

Dealing with sluggish performance and preparing for a Blu future.

October 10, 2008

A new article in "Technical":

Windows Media Center part 3: Missing center channel

What to do if you're using the SPDIF fiber or coax out from your Windows Media Center and sound only comes out of 2 speakers in your surround system.

August 26, 2008

The company iPhone

A week ago, my team received their new company iPhones. For the first few days, lots of playing, exploring, downloading of apps, taking pictures, putting funny faces on them, showing off various discoveries.

Today was the first team meeting since the iPhones were delivered. It wasn't pretty.

One team member has already decided to trade his in for a Razr because "it will receive calls". Another says she keeps hers in Edge mode normally, so the phone will work, switching to G3 only when she needs to be on the internet. Another guy forwarded his iPhone to his private cell. The recently released firmware update made no noticeably difference to the reception issues. Our program manager described trying to make a call as "hello? I'd like to... damn" (redial) "Hello? I'd like... damn" (redial) "Hello? damn" (redial).

Other gripes -- Rapid battery death in GPS mode. The camera isn't as good as the one in the company-issued Blackberry. (2.0 Mp vs 3.0 Mp). No photo flash. No video capabilities. No MMS. Awkward file management. No flash or java in the browser. One person said "Once you get past the flashy interface, you realize the guts are five or six years old".

Early adopters. Don't you love 'em.

But seriously, I'm glad there are people out there who will put up with teething issues as the necessary price of being the first to have something shiny and new. I think the concept has merit, and will be glad to "drink the Kool-Aid" as the detractors put it, when the time is right. Which isn't now. My phone, is, like, my phone. First and foremost, it has to work as a phone. The rest is cake.

August 14, 2008

Bandwidth increases to 20/5

I really think Verizon is starting to get a handle on this customer service thing.

Today a Verizon rep came by the house to warn me that copper telephony was going away. My response is and has always been that they can have my copper lines when they pry them from my cold, dead fingers. Retaining a working copper telephone line is my insurance that Verizon won't jack up the price, do packet shaping or something else that would make me want to migrate to a different ISP. So, until Verizon opens up FIOS to competing ISPs, I must retain my copper phone line.

In the course of the conversation, the rep revealed that Verizon was now offering 20Mbps down 5Mbps up as a free upgrade to people who currently have 15/2. The hitch is that I have to call and request this free upgrade.

Readers of this blog may understand how much I really did not want to call Verizon customer service. But attracted by the increased upload (20 megs down means nothing to me -- there still isn't legitimate use for that much bandwidth) I girded my loins and called the Verizon business number.

...And, as usual, got immediately routed to the consumer FIOS rep because my phone line is considered a consumer number. But this time I was prepared. I immediately said "I am a business FIOS customer. I have had a very hard time getting in contact with the right people in the past." The rep did not dump me back in the queue, but brought a business rep on the line and made sure I was talking to the right person before hanging up.

This was a complete surprise. Instead of wasting an hour or two on hold, I was able to conclude business in mere minutes.

Congratulations Verizon, that was a pleasant transaction. You appear to have customer service under control.

July 30, 2008

Musings on computer obsolescence and breaking out of the cycle of continuous upgrades in The welcome slump.

July 12, 2008

Adieu, Sony

I've given up on getting the Sony KDF-42WE655 fixed. I can not find the receipt. It's been over 18 months, and I am just not the kind of person who saves receipts. Sony won't budge, the TV is clearly ruined (huge blotches in the picture probably 3 to 5 inches across), and the repair cost (quoted at $1,250) is about the same as the cost of a better tv. I guess I have to consider this a Lesson Learned. And my main learning is that Sony is not the company they used to be, either in the quality of their consumer goods or in their commitment to customer support.

This makes me sad. I was a proponent of Beta in the eighties, an early adopter of the Sony Discman and the 8mm video cartridge. Our first electronic still camera was a Sony. We still have it and it still works. My Sony XBR television, purchased in the early eighties, lasted just over 20 years. It's sad to see a once-great company fail like this.

I've been doing some reading on this issue, and it appears that this is a problem with all Sony rear projection LCD televisions. The cause is inadequate filtering (none, really) of the air blown into the image block, causing a gradual accumulation of dust which results in a splotchy screen.

There was a class action lawsuit for some models of this TV, but my model was not included in the settlement. If your TV is having this problem, and Sony refuses to fix it, it may be possible to fix it yourself.

Note that I have not yet tried this procedure, but at this point don't have much to lose.

However, it's a complicated procedure, and even if it works, the problem is guaranteed to return due to the design of the optical block, so I'm wondering if it's worth the trouble.

June 11, 2008

A day wasted with Sony technical support

My Sony KDF-42WE655 rear projection tv developed a problem with the image block recently. As far as we can remember (still looking for the receipt) the TV is 5 to 6 months out of it's warranty. The story is still in progress. I'm documenting it in the hdtv group on groups.google.com, but the thread can also be found here.

April 12, 2008

I finally get my coffee

Taking care of a few things before I pack for a business trip. Some time ago, I related problems with a painfully hip, regular customer who routinely held up the line at a local starbucks. As a result of this, and because my cafeteria at work has changed ownership, I decide to try the cafe again and to my surprise find that service has improved tremendously.

To reiterate my previous experience at this particular cafeteria, the two employees who worked mornings considered their lunch prep work to be their highest priority, and only reluctantly took care of breakfast customers when they could squeeze a few moments in between tasks. This created a huge backup at the counter in the morning when everyone was trying to get to work, and created bad will with the customers that were expected to return for lunch. It didn't help that the employee who had to run the register in the morning was surly and openly exasperated that we were taking her away from her real work.

All that has changed. Under the new management, no prep work occurs when I'm in there between 8:00 and 9:00, and there is only one employee, who sticks by the register and quickly processes breakfast orders. Lines are seldom and everyone gets their morning pre-work caloric intake.

Although I don't have the figures, I suspect that this improved breakfast service is also pulling in more lunch revenue. Given a choice, people tend to frequent businesses where they had a positive experience. Businesses who wish to stay in business usually take this into account.

The exceptions, of course are monopolies or other situations where the customer has no choice. In these cases the employees don't have to care, and so they don't. This includes government monopolies (cable TV service, national health care, the post office), financial monopolies (companies completely dominating a niche) or situations where the customer is "locked in" -- for instance, enticed by low hardware prices into a punishing service contract.

These things change over time, so I'm sure the ebb and flow of business will eventually cause me to seek a different breakfast option, but at least for now, I can avoid the annoyance at Starbucks and get my coffee and scone at the company cafeteria in a reasonable amount of time.

February 27, 2008

Compact Fluorescents, Light Emitting Diodes and traffic lights that suck

Before we start, I should say that I've got CFLs installed everywhere in the house except the socket that's on a dimmer, and the antique fixture where a CFL won't fit. But I don't have any illusions about them.

Click here for more

Feb 20, 2008

Printers that suck

I've gotten rid of my Epson C80 color printer. It works fine, but I can't be bothered screwing with it anymore. Every time I try to use it, one or more of the cartridges has dried out, or the heads need to be cleaned, using massive amounts of ink, and I end up having to buy cartridges for the thing and muck around with it before I can complete the current project.

More here

January 30, 2008

Since I stopped doing business with the company cafeteria in the morning (they're too busy setting up for lunch to bother with the long line of customers seeking breakfast) I've become a regular at the Starbucks close to where I drop my daughter off in the morning. Usually it goes well. This morning it did not. Find out what happened in "Standing in line at Starbucks" under "Thoughts".

January 3, 2008

This is why I take blood pressure medicine. So I got my first FIOS bill, and they had not waived the installation and router charges as the salescreature said they would. So I called the last number I had arrived at (see entry for Dec 29 below) 888 553 1555 and after a long time got routed to 800 483 5000, and then after an equally long wait to 800 483 4000, and then after another long wait, 888 244 4440, and after a very long wait, the person directed me back to 888 553 1555.

Isn't that precious.

So I told the last person that (a) she was the tenth person I had talked to far this morning, and (b) I'm caught in a lengthy, endless loop. She said she'd call 888 553 1555 (the number I started with) and go through the menu herself.

After five minutes or so, she came back on the line and said that she was routed to residential, confirming the beginning of my experience. She said she'd find out how to get to the business rep and call me back when she had that person on the line.

It actually required talking to two more people, but I finally got a business supervisor by the name of Charity somewhere in the midwest that corrected the billing problem in short order. So thanks very much, Charity, it was a genuine pleasure speaking with you.

As far as I can tell, the issue is that I have business FIOS with a residential phone number. So when I call the correct number (888 553 1555) and input my phone number as asked by the voice menu system, the system recognizes my number as residential and routes me to a residential rep, and I'm in an infinite loop.

I'm told that the proper sequence is to call the 1555 number and make no input until the menu system asks for my address as alternate identification. Apparently my FIOS account is tied to my address, so giving that instead of my phone number should route me to the right place.

But I haven't tested this, yet. Hopefully I won't have to.

December 31, 2007

Some musing on the high def DVD format wars in the article "Are HighDef DVDs worth the trouble?" in "Thoughts".

December 29, 2007

More on connecting to FIOS

Last time, we got FIOS working in it's default mode -- DHCP on the LAN side -- and through great pain and long hold times, managed to get various critical information from the Verizon tech -- SMTP server, News server, login and password into start.verizon.com.

A very critical part of the setup is to bring up the servers as static IP addresses. I could connect fine on the LAN side of the Verizon-provided router, but lost connectivity when I switched to one of the static IPs I had been allocated.

I was wondering how this was going to work. The installer said that I could run NAT and bridging from the same router, which runs counter to my own experience, but hey, it's been a year since I bought a router, maybe they're more sophisticated now.

Apparently not. It looked like the router could be in NAT mode or bridge mode but not both at the same time. My D-link and Zoom both work this way so it was hardly a surprise.

The next step, then, was to put the router in bridge mode and put another router behind it for NAT, so I could have static servers but still run DHCP for the home office network.

So, one Monday after the family went to bed, I headed out to the garage to do the cut-over.

Tip: If you ever have to do this in the middle of the night in winter, don't assume it'll only take a few minutes. I was in the garage for nearly three hours in my bare feet. I would periodically go into the house and stand by the fire when Verizon put me on hold again.

To recap, although I have a business FIOS connection with static IPs, (and the installer knew this -- he even said "I've never done a business connection before; I'll have to call in to see how to configure the equipment") they set up a static IP on the WAN side, NAT on the LAN side, and called it good. I fought with their router for a half hour trying to put it in bridge mode, and was only able to completely stop any access to the internet or put it back in NAT mode. So I gave up and called Verizon technical support.

From my first call at 11:00 PM, total time on hold before I got to talk to the right person was just under 1 hour. For some reason their voice system routed me first into the DSL queue. After a half hour on hold a person told me they couldn't help me and dumped me into the FIOS queue.

After 25 minutes or so I got a woman who actually knew what FIOS was, but had no idea what I was supposed to do with a business connection. She kept saying "you can get to the Internet, right? It works, then." After laboriously explaining to her that I was paying an extra $50 a month for the privilege of having a static IP on the LAN side, she finally kicked me up to second level support, probably out of sheer frustration, as she seemed to think it was working as advertised.

After some time on hold, (trying to warm my frozen feet by the fire) I finally got second level support and had to go back to the garage. It's after midnight at this point. He knew what I was trying to do, and had me make some changes to the router. These were the same changes I had made, but I did it anyway for completeness.

He couldn't figure out why I couldn't get out, and suspected my laptop (which was configured to use a static at that point). But I could plug the laptop into the fiber modem and get out just fine. After many side conversations (while I shivered on hold) and some other experiments, he finally admitted defeat and said he'd have to kick it up even higher, but third level support works 7:00 AM to 3:00 PM, so I'd have to call back at 7:00.

At that point, it was about 1:30 AM. Frozen and tired, I had an epiphany: So, the router, in bridge mode, is basically acting like a switch, right? Except it needs one of my IP addresses on the WAN side. He admitted it was so. Well, I said, why don't I replace the router with a switch? I have one right here. He said, because I can't get support unless I'm using their router. (But if this is typical of Verizon support, what am I missing?)

So currently, the router is mounted on the garage with it's cables hanging in empty air, and I have a switch plugged into the fiber modem, with my servers and home-office router plugged into the switch. Works fine. If I ever have problems with the fiber, I'll plug their router back in so I can call technical support.

I still don't know if the router was broken, inadequate for the job, or the combined power of my experience and Verizon second level support couldn't figure out the proper settings, and at this point I don't really care. I like the way the network is configured now, and I especially like that I'm not wasting one of my IP addresses unnecessarily.

December 19, 2007

I'm starting to have a bad feeling about this... I signed up for FIOS, data only, so I can keep my phone line and revert to DSL if I have to. It is a business account, 5 static IP addresses, 15,000 Kbps down, 2,000 Kbps up.

The tech showed up on time and most of the installation went quickly. He was a little stuck on configuration, as they don't do many business accounts.

I got most of the information from the tech, but needed some basic setup information like SMTP server, News server, billing and config login/password, and URL for business website. I had negotiated the maze of twisty little passages that is http://www.verizon.com without success. Anyone knowledgeable in tech support could give me this information in short order, so I decided to call and talk to a Real Person [TM].

So I navigated to verizon.com, clicked on "contact us" and located the general sales number 800-483-4000. I called, waited through ten minutes or so of Interactive Voice Response voice menu including a forced commercial, and the catchy tune they play over and over while on hold, finally got a human, and said I needed some basic information about my new FIOS business service. I figured it was probably the wrong number, but was sure they could direct me to the right one.

I was directed to 888 244 4440. Same IVR, same tune repeated endlessly. Finally got a human, and was directed to 800 483 5000. Called that number, same voice menu purgatory, same grating tune, and finally got a human, who directed me to 877 483 2522.

Same grinding IVR hell, same spikes-in-the-ears tune, and finally got a human who directed me to 888 553 1555.

As soon as the sickeningly sweet voice menu started again, I started punching zero hoping to get transferred to a human without having to listen to that grating tune again. No such luck. Eventually the robot voice got through the menu items and I hit zero again for an attendant. More customer-aware systems let you interrupt the spiel if you know your choice, but this system seems intent on discouraging you enough to give up. The robot voice then gave me a 90 second commercial on how I could do most things from the Verizon website and didn't really need to call. Finally I was allowed to ask for an attendant.

This dumped me into another voice menu that *again* told me in excruciating detail that I could do pretty much anything on the website, and suggested I hang up and go there.

I again chose to speak to an attendant, and got a *third* repetition of the above.

I don't know if I just wore them down, but my next request appeared to dump me into the call queue. Same horrible tune, repeated over and over and over... finally a human voice came on.

At this point, I was dreadfully afraid he'd give me another number to call. But no, at long last I was in the right place. He gave me the information I needed in short order, and set up my account on start.verizon.net.

So for now, I'm good. But this reminds me of the reason I originally quit Verizon DSL. They seem to think it's a good idea to put layers and layers of bureaucracy between the customer and anyone who could actually render help.

Speakeasy, my last ISP, was a huge contrast. I could call their tech support number at any time, 24 hours a day, and get right into the queue. After a short wait, I could talk to a real person who could actually fix my problem. If the problem is long term (as with a recent outage after a windstorm) a single tech is assigned to the case, works it through to completion, and then calls you to make sure you're satisfied.

For DSL service, Speakeasy competes on two fronts: (1) by generally offering higher speeds over longer distances from the CO than does Verizon, and (2) offering fast, unencumbered access to tech support and fast turnaround on problems.

So, why did I switch to FIOS? The difference between 3 Mbps and 15 Mbps download is basically nothing. So a web page refreshes in 1/16 of a second instead of 1/4 of a second -- big deal. With (still) no legal download services needing that kind of bandwidth, there's nothing one can legitimately do with it, with the possible exception of porn.

Moreover, in most cases the upload speed of the website you're browsing will be the limiting factor.

15 megabits down could be useful for torrents, assuming your ISP doesn't do packet shaping, but again, besides new versions of ubuntu or fedora, or a very small collection of torrent-aware commercial vendors, what legitimate torrents are there?

The issue with me was upload speed. I host ten websites on this connection, and the difference between 768 Kbps upload and 2 Mbps upload is significant, especially if one is serving video. This is currently the one and only reason to switch. If I could buy 15 up and 2 down, I would.

Anyway, back to the original point. I hope that eventually these bigger pipes to the "last mile" will be open to competition, and I can choose the provider that gives me the best service for my money. In the meantime, I'm reluctantly putting up with Verizon's maze of twisty little passages, in order to provide a better experience for my own customers. It's a trade-off.

I just really hope I don't have to call tech support again.

December 10, 2007

Merry Christmas.

My business DSL line is going up and down like a crazy monkey. Speakeasy says it's the line itself, which is Verizon's responsibility. Verizon is investigating. Am considering cut-over to business FIOS.

November 6, 2007

My daughter is an artist -- she'll tell you that if you ask -- she paints in acrylics, draws in charcoal and on the computer, has published a calendar of her photography, writes short stories, and has acted in a short film. This morning we talked about the writer's strike, and why the writers believe pay structures need to change as methods of delivering content change, and I could tell she really wasn't interested.

Then, I commented that Joss Whedon was honoring the strike, putting his writing projects on hold rather than cross the picket line, and suddenly she was interested. Whedon has a lot of credibility with my daughter, and she decided that if he was going to honor the strike, she would also. So Shannon will do no more writing until the strike is over. Mind you, nobody is paying her to write right now, but it's the principle of the thing.

November 3, 2007

I document fixes to a menu plugin for Geeklog in "The PigStye menu plugin for Geeklog" in "Technical".

November 1, 2007

AmEx wants to send my mom a birthday card

I just got off the phone with American Express. I had called their voice menu to activate my new corporate credit card.

After establishing that I was calling from the correct phone number and had punched in the required 15 numbers, the recorded voice said (from memory) "You now have to establish a password. We suggest you use your mother's birthday as a password. Please use your keypad to enter the month and day of your mother's birthday" followed by an excruciating explanation of how to type month/day as four digits on a keypad.

Now, I only use random strings as passwords on critical accounts. The very last thing I want to use for a password, especially for a credit card with no spending limit, is a datum easily discovered through public records, especially when everyone else is required to use the same piece of information.

So, I punched in a random 4 digit string. No problem, right? But the voice menu is programmed to only accept four digits that represents a valid month/day. Not only are they suggesting that everyone use the same insecure datum, the menu rules enforce this insecurity.

We went around and around a few times, and finally the menu dumped me on a human operator. After establishing my identity, the operator immediately asked me for the date of my mom's birthday. I said I decline to give that information. That seemed to stump him for a few moments. Finally he said they have suggestions for alternate passwords, suggesting several possibilities, all common information easily discovered through a little data mining.

I declined to use any of those, saying I wanted to use a random string. There was a long pause on the other end. Perhaps he had to consult with a superior. Eventually he accepted the password I wanted to use and activated my card. All well and good.

But I have to wonder what prompted such lax security practices. Does the decreased support costs really justify the increase in losses?

October 19, 2007

A friend of mine does phone support for Comcast, and as I listen to his horror stories, it suddenly occurred to me that of all the service industries I have delt with, cable service stands out as being the absolute worst. I wonder why that is? More musings in the article "The worst in the industry" under "thoughts".

September 13, 2007

I tend to stay out of the RIAA debate, because the prices on Amazon and the local used CD store are sufficiently low that I'm not motivated to download music. (I stopped using iTunes when the DRM changed and I lost the ability to burn my purchases on a CD that would play in the car.)

But something occurred to me recently -- that the profits from every CD that I purchased legitimately was being used by the RIAA to sue single mothers and children, at least sometimes with no probable cause. In the spirit of Google's "do no evil", how can I morally justify purchasing a product when the funds are so obviously used to commit evil acts? I'll have to think about this more.

September 3, 2007

Musings on the Pioneer AVIC D3 in-dash navigation system and a bit of whining about the state of potato chips.

May 17, 2007

Why would you buy a phone that doesn't reliably receive calls?

I traded my Treo 650 in for a brand new 750 running Windows Mobile 5. Read about my experiences, and why I ultimately returned the phone, in the article "My new Treo" under "PDA".


 Windows Media Center part 6: A New Beginning Email Article To a Friend View Printable Version  
 Author: 
 Dated:  Wednesday, September 02 2009 @ 04:53 PM PDT
 Viewed:  1,039 times  
Technical

I take the plunge and upgrade the media center to Windows 7 Ultimate


 The Blackberry owner's survival guide Email Article To a Friend View Printable Version  
 Author: 
 Dated:  Wednesday, August 12 2009 @ 12:27 AM PDT
 Viewed:  849 times  
PDA

A work in progress. These are the things you need to know as a new Blackberry owner.


 What's on my Blackberry Email Article To a Friend View Printable Version  
 Author: 
 Dated:  Tuesday, March 31 2009 @ 02:10 PM PDT
 Viewed:  1,168 times  
PDANow that I've transitioned to the Blackberry 9000 Bold from my old PalmOS-based Treo, the search started for the applications I need on a PDA. Most of these applications are free.

In no particular order, this is what I have so far:


 Hi, my name is Ron... Email Article To a Friend View Printable Version  
 Author: 
 Dated:  Thursday, February 05 2009 @ 08:47 AM PST
 Viewed:  2,214 times  
Thoughts

...and I'm addicted to Warcraft.

"Hi, Ron"


 I dump my Treo Email Article To a Friend View Printable Version  
 Author: 
 Dated:  Friday, January 23 2009 @ 11:58 PM PST
 Viewed:  1,048 times  
PDA

My used Treo 680, acquired to replace my elderly 650 which had quit six months previously, has itself given up the ghost. What to do?


 The iPhone is so close... Email Article To a Friend View Printable Version  
 Author: 
 Dated:  Friday, January 23 2009 @ 10:22 PM PST
 Viewed:  1,031 times  
PDA

Written in December 2008, one month before getting a Blackberry.


 The company iphone Email Article To a Friend View Printable Version  
 Author: 
 Dated:  Friday, January 23 2009 @ 10:13 PM PST
 Viewed:  1,050 times  
PDA

My company issues the iPhone as a company cell phone. Sweet, right? Well, no.

(Written August 2008)


 Broadband for everyone Email Article To a Friend View Printable Version  
 Author: 
 Dated:  Friday, January 23 2009 @ 09:37 PM PST
 Viewed:  2,023 times  
Thoughts

I'm told that the new President wants everyone to have broadband access to the Internet. Is this really a good idea?


 Punishing loyalty Email Article To a Friend View Printable Version  
 Author: 
 Dated:  Thursday, January 08 2009 @ 11:17 AM PST
 Viewed:  1,090 times  
ThoughtsOn the curious practice of forcing loyal customers to pay the highest prices

 Windows Media Center part 5: Upgrade Madness Email Article To a Friend View Printable Version  
 Author: 
 Dated:  Thursday, December 18 2008 @ 08:56 AM PST
 Viewed:  5,375 times  
TechnicalA continuation of Windows Media Center Part 4, in which I discover that the "upgrade" actually made things worse, and the slow, painful process of discovering and correcting each issue.

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