Thursday, March 21, 2013

Fun wit the Comcast/Xfinity Beast

Wasted half an hour on the phone with Comcast aka Xfinity (wasted first ten minutes trying to find their phone number on their site) attempting without success to reduce service to save on my monthly bill.

I have "triple play' which combines TV, internet, and landline in one bill - which has grown to $175 a month over the past year or so. Once again I am reminded how well Comcast organizes its pricing structure to discourage exactly what I was trying to do.

Last year I reduced my internet speed to save money; the standard service is around 12mbps; the *only* lesser option is 1mbps, for which I save about ten bucks. One, or 12 - cute, huh? (Of course, Comcast's internet people can't help themselves: The speed has risen over the past year to 3mbps.) Happily I found that I can tolerate this speed just fine, since I don't watch high-bandwidth shows on my computer anyway, nor do Skyping.

So i called thinking to cut back on the TV side -- research shows that dropping down to the basic package drops off all the channels you most like, such as AMC and the housing shows my wife likes -- so I figured to cut back on HD, since we hardly ever use it (not sports fans) and would not miss it. Turns out that the DVR, which we do like, works on the HD package only -- drop to the "classic" (non-HD) service and bye-bye DVR. 

Also discovered that their DVR will indeed show on the other TV using a wireless gadget that should have been installed last year when I got the DVR but the tech didn't install, and nobody told me about. To have the tech come up and hook it up right will cost me -- $50. No, since it was their mistake, they'll discount that to $35. Nice.

Several "how about this package combo?" discussions later, all of which result in getting more service for just a bit more money, I gave up. It is not possible to reduce these costs. I suspect if I cancelled the phone element of the triple play, the remaining double--play items would add up to -- $175 a month.

I get my cell service from AT&T; I think I need to drop by and see if they can do anything for me. I suspect I will get the same treatment from them too, but the prospect of poking Comcast in the eye is hard to resist. I've been a happy Comcast customer for more than a decade (and its predecessors for another decade before that) but I can no longer afford it. One advantage of AT&T in my case is that I could presumably just drop my landline altogether, since I get my cell service from AT&T. (Last year I threatened Comcast with switching to AT&T and got a temporary fifteen dollar a month discount.)

Any of you have experience with AT&T's internet and TV service? Is it bad or tolerable, and is it just as gouging as Comcast?

Mac McCarthy

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

California vs. Elsewhere: Living For the Weather Vs. Living In Spite Of The Weather

In a recent discussion among fellow journalists, we were comparing places we've lived, and where is better. Weather, traffic, living expenses, family, relatives who need care, and job availability were all mentioned.

Several described the San Francisco area, where I live, as too expensive -- "spendy" is how htey put it. I replied:

SF isn't so spendy once you've paid off your house. There are lots of things -- wine, for example, and fruits and vegetables, that are more affordable here than in some other places. And like all urban areas, other products and services are less expensive because of the large market.

I was raised in South Jersey near Philadelphia, went to school in Philly, went to D.C. in the Army, then to Frankfurt, Germany  for three years. Then to Oakland, then down to L.A. for a few years and now back to the Oakland/East Bay area.

I've liked all the places I've lived. Each has its own thing. What's peculiar about California, to a New Jersey kid, is that this is one of those places where the weather is so wonderful so often that the weather becomes a major part of the living experience. In most other places in the world, weather just is; in South Jersey it's cold in the winter and muggy in the summer - you just put up with it. I imagine that someone living in North Dakota just deals with the frigid weather in winter (and heat in summer) as part of the background. You live in California, in part, because of the weather; you live in Chicago in spite of the weather. You live in both places, more fundamentally, for other reasons -- family, friends, job, nightlife, quiet or noise, busyness or lack thereof.

Sometimes, though, the severity of weather in some places drives its longtime residents to seek less-severe weather elsewhere, especially when the major factors - family, job, circle of friends - undergoes a major change. Thus so many MidWesteners and New Yorkers move to Florida once they retire. 

Sunday, October 16, 2011

I Hate Shiny Laptop Screens, Don't You?

The Worst, and the Best, and the Worst Again

Three parts to this story: Dell's mirrored laptop screens, Photodon's antireflective film, Photodon's extraordinary customer service, and my complete inability to apply the film even with a second chance.

I made the first mistake: I bought a Dell Inspiron laptop, which is huge and weighs a ton, instead of buying a svelte 'netbook' and saving myself a lot of arm-pulling grief.

I don't know what I was thinking.

Compounding the weight problem, the Dell has a perfectly shiny, mirror-like screen that perfectly reflects all light sources above or behind you -- making the laptop almost useless anywhere but in a dimmed room. Why on earth would they do that? Amazon likes to tease Apple for its mirrored iPad, while its Kindle has a matte finish, so you can read it anywhere, even n broad daylight sitting poolside. Can't do that with an iPad - or with a Dell laptop.

I don't know what they were thinking.

Solution: Anti-Reflective Film from Photodon

I finally searched for an anti-reflective film I could apply, and came to Photodon, LLC, a Traverse City, Michigan maker of such films, as well as monitor hoods and screen-care products. The films aren't expensive -- $20 or less, depending on the size of your screen, plus shipping. They are sized to fit your specific laptop model, so you don't have to cut anything to size, thank goodness or this blog post would include a section on bleeding.

The package comes in a stiff, flat mailing package, with a cleaning cloth, instructions, a link to online video demos of how to apply the film, and the film itself, which is impressively thick and stiff and durable-seeming, not like cellophane.

You're supposed to clean the laptop screen thoroughly, pull away the protective plastic, and carefully lay the film from one edge of the laptop screen and gradually down until it's all on. The only problem is the bubbles -- you know, the bubbles that persist in showing up whenever you try to lay down a film like this -- if you'veever tried to put antiglare film on a car window, you know what I mean. A credit card can act as a squeegee to help this process, but it's hard anyway. Tiny bubbles appear wherever the film encounters a speck of dust -- then you have to pull is back, dab the spot with scotch tape to lift off the mote, then attempt again to lay it down across the screen.

And again and again and again. And pull dust motes off until it becomes obvious that you live in the dustiest house in America. No matter how many times I cleaned the screen, no matter how careful I tried to be, I could not get the film to lay down cleanly.

And of course the demo video shows someone performing the operation as if it's nothing at all.

Me, I ended up with enough bubbles to qualify for a 7-Up advertisement.

Trying to Help

After an hour of this, I gave up in frustration. I emailed the company, telling them I was a failure at applying their product and had given up. I asked them to send me another one, and bill me.

They suggest I try cleaning the film in soapy water and reapplying.

So I did that. I did it a couple of times. I got more bubbles than ever.

The frustration was compounded by seeing that in places where the film was clear, it did exactly the reflection-dimming job I was looking for! If only I could get the doggoned thing on, I'd be in laptop heaven!


So I threw the damned thing in the trash, and sent a depressed woe-is-me note to Photodon customer support.

Whereupon Photodon sent me a replacement film. Free.

Just like that.

Without me even asking.

I would never think to ask for that -- not free -- it's my own imcompetence with physical objects, not their film. But no, they just sent a replacement.

I've never seen customer support like that. If they are handing out medals and plaudits for customer-support saintliness -- please send Photodon to the front of the line -- they deserve it.

Just Shoot Me -- Again

I got the replacement package and put it next to my desk for several weeks, afraid to open it and try again. Finally, this evening, I screwed up my courage and tackled it again. I will be going to a trade show tomorrow, and the idea of the glaring lights coming up from my laptop screen forced my hand.

Unhappily, I again completely failed to lay down the film on the laptop screen without a dozen bubbles appearing. Nothing I did could make them go away, no re-laying-down, no sticky-tape attacks on miniscule bits of lint, no caution, no clean hands.Nothing.

In the right kind of world, Photodon's extra-extra efforts to make a customer happy would have a happy ending. I don't live in that kind of world, darn it. So I have Lessons Learned, and ttired of learning lessons I am.

I see two lessons in this, I think. Plus a bonus lesson, but that one applies only to me.

1. Dell and all other laptop makers should produce matte-finish laptop screens. Period. If there is some techical reasons why they can't be made in that size -- they should as a matter of course buy film from Photodon and apply it before sending it to the customers.

2. Photodon has the greatest customer support in the world. I take my hat off to them, and so should you.

3. I cannot apply antiglare film to a laptop screen, period. Perhaps I should stick with virtual tasks; meat-space work only frustrates.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

On Having "Too Many" Books....

I say to all of you who, like me, have "too many" books: Stop thinking that way. You actually have far too few books -- as evidenced by the fact that you keep getting more books.

Books are inexpensive, in most cases printed on paper from tree farms to it's a crop, emit no noxiouis gases, take up remarkably little space considering how many you have, harm no one when sitting on shelves or in boxes under the house, and give great joy to the holder.

Of all obsessions, weaknesses of desire, and unrealistic visions, surely having 'too many books' is the least harmful...

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Why We All Hate Facebook's New Not-Email Message Service (And Why We're Probably Full Of It)

I am puzzled by the seemingly intense hostility to the mere *idea* of FB organizing its info feeds in what they hope will be a more convenient way. I'll have to see how it's executed, which I haven't been able to do yet, but notionally it seems like the start of a good idea.

But the reviews by Steven and other tech commentators seems along the lines of "No! You will NOT reorganize your communications method! Not, do you hear me?" and "What would anybody NEED such nonsense for, anyway?" and "They say it's not email, but we KNOW it's email, and so they're full of shit and so is their product!" and "*Nobody* needs this! *I* don't need it, and I can't imagine why anybody else would!"

1. FB's main comm use is the Wall; which is just an unorganized stream, and that's the most criticized part of its operation. Reworking that so you can find things in your Wall is a good idea, if it works - not a bad idea in principle.

2. This is clearly aimed at people who basically live in FB. Not at people who have 14 email accounts, their own servers, deep technical knowledge, and complex online and offline lives. For its intended audience, I am guessing at this early stage, merging their wall and their email messages and their IM messages into one organized presentation will be a good thing. For them, a very good thing. Not for us, maybe -- but FB's 500 million are, if nothing else, *not us.* My guess is that the typical satisfied future user of this system will be someone who gets most of their input from their Wall, a limited amount from their email, and a bunch from their IMs. They will love it -- and they will probably use even less of their email going forward than they do now. If they incorporate SMS as well, they've already won -- our manic hostility notwithstanding. (My daughters, for example, can only reliably be reached by telephone text message. It's the one mechanism they pay timely attention to.)

3. FB has, at 500 million members, reached that lofty plateau where all commentators are obliged, apparently as a condition of servitude, to disdain every single thing they do -- their mistakes, their attempts to make up for their mistakes, their attempts to respond to their actual customers (as opposed to the loudest complainers), their old products, their new products, every feature they have and every feature they change and every feature they leave unchanged. Their very existence is a blot upon the universe -- judging from what I read. Google would be in this boat if it hadn't managed to accidentally get positioned as Savior Against Microsoft, but that string has run out now that Microsoft is subconsciously viewed as a giant-sized loser, so Google is beginning to get the I Hate You Because You Are So Big And Successful treatment, which will only grow.

Apple should be big enough for this treatment, but its Fanboyz are effective at rear-guard action, which dampens the (much deserved on occasion) criticisms. Microsoft of course is the poster boy. IBM once occupied this chair but is now emeritus. Dell's stumbles have earned it an eventually-fatal combination of hatred and dismissive disdain. 

This emotional reflex tendency has the unfortunate effect of undermining the persuasiveness of much critical commentary - sometimes unfortunately. All I know is, if Facebook announces it, it will be shot down as Dead On Arrival within minutes. It's like watching partisan politicians battling. Sometimes, of course, it deserves to be shot down, but you can't tell just from the incoming fire.

Mac McCarthy

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Remember when you had a train set? Look at this one!

My brother Dennis sent me this link to a video of the doggonest miniature train setup you've ever seen:

in Germany, covering nearly half an acre, at a cost of 8 million Euros (paid for by charging admission). 

My friend Mark Cappel remarked when I sent him this link:

"Have you ever had a train set? It's a maintenance nightmare. Any humidity at all and the tracks corrode and the trains halt or run erratically, which would be hell with the 46-ft train. They must have a humidity controlled room and a trapeze device for flying people in to clean the tracks."

But for most of us kids, the train set never got to the point where it was able to become a maintenance nightmare: It was everything you could do to get the engine to run completely around the track; the set never had enough power; you were always adding track in an attempt to make an actually interesting layout -but the more track you laid, the harder it was for the electrical system to drive the engine, and the slower everything went. My most common memory is of stationing a younger brother at the far end of the track to nudge the engine around the far corner when it stalled, as it did every time.

A few hours of that and we'd had enough for a few weeks. A few hours every month, over the course of a couple of years, then it sat in the basement for a couple of decades - until my mom threw the whole thing out one year -- to the shock and dismay of me and my five brothers. "But you haven't used it in years. In fact, none of you have been down into the basement since you moved away!" "Yeah, but you should have *told* us you were getting rid of it!" [Wives of same brothers, sub-voce to my Mother: "Thank you for throwing it out! He would just have stored it in *our* basement for the next twenty years!"]

Mac McCarthy
Editorial Director

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Anti-Pied Piper: The Difficulty of Leading for the so-called Influencer

A discussion of the file-sharing utility 'Dropbox' reminds me of a nagging problem that is only slowly surfacing in my consciousness as an ongoing issue: the difficulty of "leading" people when you're supposed to be an "influencer."

It's wonderful to have friends, and followers, and club fellow members, and all the other relationships, but it can be disillusioning when you actually have a chance to test your influence over others, and get to see just how far it goes.

Or doesn't.

I subscribed to the Web file service Dropbox because it allowed me to send photos to an editor without worrying about file sizes. These days, even the simplest camera generates pictures that are two megabytes in size each, and attempting to email a dozen or so to friends and family can be a discouraging experience: Many people have emailboxes that fill up rapidly, and/or won't accept messages with more than a couple of megabytes in attachments.

But if you have someone you exchange pictures with regularly, if you both have Dropbox you can just drag as many files into a Dropbox folder, and after a while they can drag the same files out of their own Dropbox folder on their computers. It's easy, free, and painless.

Well, setting up a specific shared folder can be a little head-scratching, but it can be figured out eventually and only has to be done once for each correspondent.

Still, I have found it surprisingly hard to get my friends to set up on Dropbox. Even ones who download and install the software put off the folder sharing setup. And even those who have gotten that far can't necessarily be nagged into clearing out their folders of photos and videos and other documents you're sending them. I have two daughters and three other friends who have left their Dropbox folders sitting there with my offerings untouched for months. It's irritating.

Mainly because it underlines once again how little actual influence I have on the actions of others. I am a member of two winetasting groups, and organizer of one of them, with 30 members each. I used to do a wine-events newsletter to one of the groups, until after a year of piecing together the newsletters each month I finally realized that nobody was using the information. They were reading it, and often commenting on how they enjoyed it -- but nobody went to any of the  local events I listed! OK, once -- one couple came to an event, once.

Some Pied Piper I am!

When my consumer Web startup went into beta testing, I invited the same wine group members to sign up, to see if our site's group and events features would do a good job of organizing our monthly wine parties. Half a dozen signed up; the other two dozen didn't even respond. And I see these people every month at the wine event! I post wine tasting notes to my blog and manage to get only a small handful of my 400 Twitter followers to click on the link and go read a posting! Only three of the wine club members Follow the wine blog directly!

Our site will be launching in a week, and I worry that I won't be able to lure more than a small, guilt-ridden handful of my many friends will go to the trouble, despite my determined nagging, of visiting the site and considering signing up. 

Biblical quotes about voices crying in the desert arise unbidden as I consider my  status as the non-Pied Piper of my circle of friends.... Most discouraging.

 Mac McCarthy
Editorial Director