Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Comcast Makes Good

At long last, we have a working Tivo. For those who weren't paying attention, after writing my last post clearly describing how the fine folks at Comcast could not for the life of them figure out how to get a Comcast CableCard properly installed in a Tivo, an Internet-trolling Comcast Customer Service employee came across my blog and actually posted a comment asking me to contact him so he could help. So I did. And he did. And just like that, all is right with the world. He conferred with the tech that was coming to the house, made sure the guy would have a full arsenal of tools at his disposal, and voila. At long last I can Tivo this week's episode of "Hung" on HBO. Not that I'd want to. The show is pretty lame, frankly.

So what have we learned, class? Well first, it pays to speak your mind. And these days, if you speak your mind you'd be surprised just who might actually hear it. In fact several months ago, I posted a similar rant about attempting to replace a defective ceiling fan bought at Home Depot. As a result of that rant, the administrator of a large ceiling fan sales website commented, thanking me for posting such useful information. Had I thought of doing this a few years back when we discovered the aftermarket warranty on our couch was as much a sham as the blanket tossed over the back of the same couch, I would have ranted about that, too. Hmm, maybe I still will.

Suddenly, I'm taken to a moment back in time, back when I was when I was a strapping young lad by the age of 10 or 11. One day in elementary school I was assigned a homework assignment that involved selecting a product that I liked and writing a letter of praise to the manufacturer. The product I chose was the Swingline stapler. But not just any stapler. Specifically, one of those tiny red ones designed for elementary school to students carry around in their pencil boxes.

For some reason that seems to escape me at the moment, this was the product I chose. Looking back, I realize now how close I became to becoming that guy played by Stephen Root in Office Space. It's kind of eerie, actually. Come to think of it, I do mumble a lot, and I like setting fire to things. I could set this whole building on fire, in fact, I...

Wait, where was I? Oh yeah.

While I don't recall exactly how I extolled the virtues of the Swingline Mini Stapler or how exactly it completed my childhood, I do remember one thing. Out of all the kids in the class, I was the only one who got not only a response from the manufacturer, but a freebie as well. Yes, Swingline actually sent me a shiny new Mini Stapler, with a year's supply of staples. I remember walking proudly into school that day, heaving my shiny new Mini Stapler over my head like an Academy Award, thrown off balance by the proud slaps on the back from my fellow students, showered with cheers and coy giggles from fawning school girls. There I was, a true hero of the gifted class, for one brief but powerful, shining moment that my fellow students would recall fondly for years to come. At least, that's how I remembered it.

What the heck was I talking about again?


And I said, I don't care if they lay me off either, because I told, I told Bill that if they move my desk one more time, then, then I'm, I'm quitting, I'm going to quit. And, and I told Don too, because they've moved my desk four times already this year, and I used to be over by the window, and I could see the squirrels, and they were married, but then, they switched from the Swingline to the Boston stapler, but I kept my Swingline stapler because it didn't bind up as much, and I kept the staples for the Swingline stapler and it's not okay because if they take my stapler then I'll set the building on fire...

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Construction of the Horse Poop Cabinets

One month into my latest workshop project, I am surprised to say I'm making good progress. You may recall that I've decided to tackle the construction of an entertainment center using, among other things, some reclaimed lumber from an old barn in the area. Jeff, my woodworker buddy who sold me the sycamore floorboards that he scavenged from the old barn, reminded me that a)not only will this wood make for a beautiful piece of furniture and a good story but b)horses, cows, and perhaps an occasional goat have been peeing and pooping on this wood for over a hundred years. Mmm...smell that history.

Working with the stuff has been an interesting challenge. As demonstrated yesterday when I tossed a few scrap pieces into the fireplace and watch them erupt into flames, this wood is as dry as the Sahara. Every time I cut a piece on my table saw, I nervously expect the piece to disintegrate into dust. But so far the wood has held together quite nicely. It's also been a challenge cutting down boards in such a way that I don't end up with giant knot holes or nail holes, although a few nicks and scrapes here and there make for nice character.

The project is proving to be a good learning experience, as well. For example, I learned you really shouldn't put the back of a bookshelf on before putting the face frames on. If your back isn't quite square, the face frames ain't gonna fit. I also learned that a biscuit joiner is a very cool tool to have in the arsenal, because it allows you to screw up and get away with it. I've also learned that I should have bought a random orbit sander years ago, using Gel Stain is a lot like spreading chocolate pudding, and I proved the old woodworker's saying that you can never have enough clamps.

So, here's my progress so far:

The original design:

Just checking to see how off-square I am:

Bookshelf #1 complete (well, aside from shelving and lighting of course)

The sycamore has some really cool grain patterns to it:

I think I need more clamps.

Comcast continues to amaze me

I promise I'll get back to my regularly scheduled blogging about constructing the ultimate family with my next post, but first I need to vent about Comcast one more time. We're now into our third week of owning a new Tivo and of having Comcast pay visits to the house only to have no clue what to do with us.

It was such a simple matter. Tivo requires the use of a CableCard. Comcast provides CableCards. Make an appointment, have a Comcast dude come over and install it, and you're golden, right? So let's see where we are....

December 4: Make appointment for a week from Saturday
December 12: The 8-12 window of the appointment goes by, and at 11:59 lady calls to say the tech has no cable cards, can they bring me a set top box instead. I explode at her for making me wait all freaking morning to tell me this, instilling fear and wrath such that the woman cowers in a corner and pleads for me to let her supervisor call me. Supervisor never calls, so I call Comcast tech support and complain for an hour. Supervisor then calls, comes over 45 minutes later with three CableCards, none of which work. Says he needs to get new ones from "the warehouse" during the week. Makes appointment for 6pm-9pm December 16
December 16: Tech shows up at 1:30 in the afternoon. WTF. Installs a Cablecard. Spends an hour on the phone with the home office. Gets it working, except there are no premium channels showing. Doesn't mention that to my lovely wife, and leaves thinking he's free. I come home see there's no premium channels, call Comcast.They spend ten minutes trying to send a signal to the Card with no luck. Says they need to come out again with a new CableCard.
December 19: Tech arrives on time, but with no replacement cableCards. Spends an hour on phone with home office, trying to get current card to work, with no luck. Lists the name of every supervisor he can to woman on other line, pleading my case to her and explaining how Comcast has totally screwed us. I like this guy, despite the fact that he didn't do anything for us. Plus Daisy LOVED him. Our next attempt happens Tuesday afternoon.

Okay, so that brings us to today. I've realized the flaw in their system.

First of all, it's a known fact that CableCards arere a commercial failure for the industry, primarily because Comcast and other Cable companies realized that they shouldn't offer $2.00 CableCards to customers when instead they could market $10 cable boxes and get additional revenue with On Demand sales. Sure, makes sense. But that doesn't negate the fact that new Tivos REQURE the use of CableCards, and Comcast still OFFERS CableCards, therefore they should SUPPORT CableCards.

Second, most of their techs work from home. They wake up each morning and say, "Well Brain, what are we going to do today?" Pinky answers with, "Same thing we do every day, Pinky...install some cable boxes." Basically if a gadget ain't in their truck already, they aren't prepared for the day and there's going to be a problem. At no point are the techs informed ahead of time that there will be a CableCard installation, and he'd better stop at the warehouse and get a working CableCard.

Third, CableCard settings expire. If the tech grabs a bunch to keep in his car, they are already initialized and coded to work with the local Comcast system. But if they aren't used in, say, three months, the settings automatically expire and the card needs to be reinitialized before it's brought to the house.

Seems like a classic failure to communicate. If they ever get this working right, the next thing I'm going to do is have a little chat with Comcast, and have them lower my bill by using this strategy.

Oh and the next Comcast employee who asks me why I wouldn't like to keep Comcast's DVR instead will get punched.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

As long as I'm venting

Wow, this is a first. I'm bored. I'm actually bored. Not to say my life is normally the most exciting there is, but it's raining outside, the wife and Thing #1 are out, while Thing #2 has vanished into the playroom with her new Barbie dollhouse. It's cold and rainy outside, my cabinet project is currently in midst-glueup so I can't work on it right now, and I don't feel like watching TV, exercising, or in any way improving my life.

I know! I'll vent some more!

As you could see by my last post, major consumer goods have annoyed me lately. So as long as I'm walking down that path, maybe I'll take some time and bitch a little bit about Apple.


"But Mike," you say. "Aren't you, like, a total Mac lover? I mean, don't you want to MARRY your Mac?"

Well sure. Our house has gone all Mac, as we currently has two Apple iMacs no PC-based machines, three iPods, an iPhone, an Apple Time Capsule, and an Airport Express. After all, I use PCs all day at work and, much like a gynecologist, do I really want to take my work home each day? And all of it works together just so bloody well. So why would I complain?

Because Apple seems to have failed with two simple, basic home computing rights: The right to keep a to-do list and the right to print an address correctly.

I'll explain. First, Apple has done a very nice job on integrating a To-do list application into their Mail and Calendar programs. Since users are always in Mail anyways, it's easy to click one button and add an item to a to-do list in a separate window of the Mail program. Those To-do items also synchronize with the Calendar program, so you can easily see in the calendar what's coming up on the To-do list.

But there's one huge flaw with the whole To-do list feature. It doesn't exist on the iPhone. You can sync your mail, calendars, addresses and notes between the computer and the phone. Why THE HELL can't you sync To-do lists? It seems like a basic human right. And come on, Apple, people have been complaining about this since the day the iPhone first came out. I mean, I can point my iPhone at a star in the sky, and it will automatically tell me what star that is. I can hold my phone in front of me, and it will give me the name, menu, and reviews of the restaurant in front of me. I can even update my Facebook status. Why the hell can't I keep a decent to-do list on it using Apple's own to-do application?

The second issue I have is that, apparently, the developer of Apple's address book application came from a very broken family. There's a seemingly nice intelligent feature in the address book, where if you enter the name of a contact's spouse in the "spouse" field, that spouse's name will magically appear when you print an address label. Great, so if my buddy John Smith is married to Jane, I just put Jane's name in the Spouse box, and as a result I can print a mailing label and it will state "John and Jane Smith". Great. Almost.

The first problem is that you must put Jane's last name in the Spouse box as well. Otherwise her name will not appear. Okay actually, once I managed to figure out this extremely poorly documented feature, I began to realize it actually makes sense, because if Jane keeps her own name of "Jones" then the system is smart enough to print "John Smith and Jane Jones" rather than John and Jane Smith.

But wait. There's more. It turns out that if there is ANY other "Jane" in your address book, her name will not print on the mailing label unless you create an address book entry specifically for Jane Smith, with exactly the same address as john's, AND enter her name in John's Spouse field. Huh? Why? I get the feeling that this is because the address book is trying to handle the concept of divorce elegantly. Perhaps Jane moved out, got a new address, and therefore needs her own Christmas card.

But wait, it gets better. The same process is true for kids. If John and Jane have a little boy Joey, and you want to address their Christmas card as "John, Jane, and Joey Smith", then you must put Joey's name in the Child field and include his last name. but if there's any other Joey in the address book, then little Joey Smith needs his own address book entry too, or his name won't print on the Smith's address label. Why in the name of Steve Jobs would I want to create a separate address book entry for every child of every friend of mine in order to get a working mailing list for our annual holiday cards?

Oh and speaking of which, there's no way to toggle the feature on and off. So if I want to send an Xmas card to the entire Smith family, great. Do the above. But then if I only want to invite John and Jane to the Bar Mitzvah, without the kids, I have to completely redo their address entry.

I have a hunch that Steve Jobs doesn't send out his own Christmas cards. Otherwise this would never be a problem.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Commercial Failures of the week

Ever have one of those weeks where everything seems to cost you time and money? Where everything seems to break at the same time? where the whole concept of the "valued customer" apparently means nothing anymore? This was one of those weeks. It started early in the week, when I called a medical supply office that was making custom fit orthotics for my running shoes. I suddenly realized it had been over two months since I ordered them. They told me, "yeah, they're here, can you come in next week for a fitting? Okay great, see you then. Oh and (lowers voice to a mumble) these aren't covered by insurance, so that will be $160."

Wait...what? And, why didn't you tell me this before making the order?

Things progressed when I paid a visit to my local Lowes. We have a light fixture in our kitchen with three hanging track lights on it, and one decided to fry itself. We installed it in late 2006, so naturally Lowes doesn't carry it anymore. And neither does the manufacturer. Not even repair stock. Great. So I can either tear apart the fixture and attempt to replace the element inside that's fried, or replace the entire light fixture AND the matching one over the dinette table, which won't be easy because these fixtures were specifically chosen because the hole in the ceiling is off-center. Naturally I'm going with the former plan.

And then, there's Comcast. You know all those FIOS commercials you see with the read-headed cable guy who simply just doesn't have anything worthwhile to offer his customers? I was that customer today. A little over a week ago we treated ourselves to a brand new Tivo. This Tivo takes CableCards, which are little cards that slide into the Tivo and perform the same task as one of those digital cableset top boxes. Comcast readily provides them, but they insist on coming out to install. No problem, I made an appointment for today (a full week after I called), and they gave me the typical arrival estimate of between 8am and noon.

At 11:59 today, just as I was about to click the "chat now" button on Comcast Support's website, the phone rang. It was the contractor's secretary who called to say not only is he running late, but that they didn't have any Cablecards and wondered if I'd like a set top box instead. At that point I completely blew up at her and demanded to know why they are just telling me this now, and how she expects me to insert a set top box into the little slot on the front of my Tivo. She quickly got herself off the phone by interrupting my tirade and asking if I wanted the supervisor to call me directly. I replied with "yes please" and hung up the phone.

An hour and a half later, having heard nothing from them, I CALLED Comcast support, and got a very nice and understanding lady who took all sorts of notes and sent all sorts of emails to allegedly the right people who would get in touch with me. Very nice of her, though so far that gets me cable service on my Tivo as much as pouring orange juice into the CableCard slots would. But it turned out that 45 minutes later I got a call from a "district supervisor" who said they found some CableCards and would be right over. And they were.

And none of the three CableCards he brought with him worked. He then told me they would have to come back during the week. So I scheduled the followup appointment, let him leave the house, then called the nice Comcast lady back and asked her what she could do for me to compensate for the misery of the day. The best she could do was give me a $20 credit. Not only was that pretty pathetic, but a friend reminded me this evening that this installation also cost $16. So I'll be calling Comcast back again shortly. Meanwhile, FIOS continues to dig up our street, laying cables for their service. Keep digging FIOS, keep digging.

And to top things off, my camera broke this evening. Awesome capper to an awesome day.