Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Airlines Have Reduced Baggage Limits Ridiculously

I recently had to pack for a trip on an airline. You used to get three bags at 70 pounds each for free. Those were the glory days. Now you get two bags at 50 pounds, and the airline employees never know their own airline's rules, which still allow bags to be up to 70 pounds. Instead, you have to pull out the airlines rule and show them. Then the agent acts like he is breaking his back, lugging your bag of 70 pounds to the conveyor belt.

Pretty soon, the baggage limit will be down to 17 pounds. Since your bag will weigh 15 pounds, you will be allowed a net 2 pounds of baggage at a cost of $50 per bag.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Reef Photo is the Greatest

I have a few sponsors (listed on my web pages) of my work. All of them are listed there for good reason -- they provide excellence in photographic gear and services.

I'd like to commend Reef Photo today, and the proprietor and fellow underwater photographer, Ryan Canon. Ryan Canon at Reef Photo is a star. He knows his stuff down to the last millimeter of detail. I am serious; ask him what port extension is needed to fit a 20-year-old Nikon 105mm AF Micro f2.8 lens, and he will tell you. I keep wondering when he is going to burn out since he seems to reply personally to all emails, with a level of detail that is astonishing.

Ryan's been a huge help to me and multitudes of other underwater photographers with his expertise and his retail operation. He's my first source now if I have a question about technique or what kind of gear might solve your problem, and I've been astonished at how much he remembers in terms of past questions. I think he knows what gear I have better than I do. He does take a few days to respond to my emails when he is busy, but I know that he always comes through in tight deadlines. Obviously, his patience is very high since he still answers my emails and questions!

If you are in the market for underwater photography gear, I can't give a higher recommendation than Reef Photo and Ryan Canon.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

I Don't Quite Understand

I don't quite understand how walking 60 miles for the Susan G. Komen foundation will solve the problem of breast cancer. I walk, I will be very sore, I will be very tired. How will that help solve breast cancer?

I don't mean to be mean. I donate to causes that I believe in and that are close to my heart. I did stop donating to the SPCA of Monterey County when the director told me that he would not stop robocalling because "it works."

I'm just tired of constantly being hit over the head with causes that want me to send them money. It's out of control, man! I'd like to drink my coffee without having to think whether I am saving a coffee grower in Africa. I'd like to walk without wondering if I am doing my part to beat breast cancer.

A Great, Inexpensive Cell Phone and Plan That Gives You Voice and Email

Folks -- sorry.  As of 4-22-12, AT&T changed their GoPhone plans.  The only way you can get data on a smartphone now is by buying a $25 or $50 package each month.  This means that I can no longer recommend AT&T's GoPhone service as a good, inexpensive choice for someone needing minimal data and voice. 

I've been searching for years for an inexpensive (instead of outrageous) cell phone plan that offered me some minutes to talk as well as the ability to see and reply to my emails while I was traveling or doing errands. I mention the AT&T GoPhone plans in previous blog posts, which allow me to have exactly this. With an AT&T GoPhone plan and the right phone, you can have a cell phone and check all your emails for as little as $100 per year. You can even skip a month or two as this is a prepaid plan. Phone calls are $0.10 per minute (that's 10 cents per minute, I wrote $10 per minute in the past which is wrong), and checking your emails each month will cost as little as $5 per month. I know, I've had this plan on a Blackberry that has the GMail mobile app on it for four months now, and I've gotten by with the $5 per month data plan easily.

I've had this plan for four months now, and if you talk on the phone for about 100 minutes per month and check your emails, it costs $15 per month ($10 for the voice calls and $5 for the data plan). I've now found a phone on Amazon that I can say works well.

One caveat -- if you receive or send text messages, the cost seems to be $0.20 per text message. This is outrageous. You can buy a package for $4.99 per month that gives you 200 text messages per month, or you can pay more for 1000 messages per month, or unlimited. I don't send or receive texts at all, so this is not an issue for me. I am a total email guy. Yes, I am old school.

I don't talk on my cell phone much at all. When I am at home or the office, I use a landline and Google Voice, which gives me free phone calls in the US (and maybe Canada). Google offers anyone with a Gmail account free calling also -- just go into Gmail and use the Call feature. You enter the phone number, and Google connects you through your computer just like Skype, only for free. I also use Google Voice for international calls, which are very inexpensive, on the range of two cents per minute for Australia and England.

Update: March 21, 2012: I tried an LG Thrive phone ($115 from an Amazon seller) that works with the AT&T GoPhone.  This is a low-end Android phone.  I was able to set it up for emails and calls in just a few minutes.  Rather than the Nokia, I would recommend the LG Thrive phone.   Since this was an Android phone, it came with a bunch of apps like GMail, email, and a web browser already installed.  All of these work great and with a lot less work than the Nokia X-2 (which is admittedly older technology).

So -- buy an inexpensive Android phone and use the AT&T GoPhone plan!

If anyone out there wants to use the Nokia X-2 phone, here's the text from my older post:

I have finally found a phone that is relatively inexpensive and will allow you to put the GMail mobile app on it. I did not want to buy another Blackberry -- Google no longer supports the GMail mobile app on the Blackberry, which means that you if you don't have it on a cell phone that allows the web, then you have to log into your web browser every time you want to check your email. The biggest feature of Blackberries, "push email", simply notifies you with a red flashing light on the Blackberry when a new email comes in. I discovered that my unlocked Blackberry with the GMail app on it (not the dedicated Blackberry email service) DID notify me this same way when I had a waiting email. Awesome! But Google went and canceled support for GMail on the Blackberry.

I wanted to find a phone for my wife that let me do the same two tasks -- voice calls and GMail. The phone had to let me install the GMail app rather than having to open a web browser. I've done a ton of searching and reading, and I finally bought a Nokia X2-01 from Amazon for $85. This is a nice phone, seems sturdy, and after much fiddling and research on the web, I got it working so I have the GMail mobile app on it.

I have found that Nokia's email app works nicely with Gmail too. It does not use push email as well as the Blackberry. If the phone is locked (not powered off), it seems that a notice of incoming emails does appear on the screen, but there is no flashing light. I have to test this further and use the phone a bit longer. But this phone has good battery life, good build quality, and once you get it set up, it seems to fit the bill. You won't get a full-fledged web browser or 3G or 4G speed. The Opera browser doesn't do much for me at all; it is very slow and limited.

Here are some important notes if you want to use this phone's email and internet browser on the AT&T network.

There are a ton of confusing and old posts that describe how to set various Nokia phones to use the AT&T GPRS network. If you follow those instructions, then you might get your Opera browser on the phone to work, but will get constant error messages when trying to get GMail and the Nokia email app to work. The error messages will include "subscribe to packet data first" and "you need a working internet connection for this application to work."

Note that the Nokia X2-01 phone runs the Series 40 or S40 operating system. There are not many tutorials out there that explain how to set up this particular phone, so you have to use instructions and adapt them to the instruction set of this phone.

This video is just great. I spent hours on the internet trying to figure out the settings so my Nokia phone could access the internet, and so I could set up Gmail on it. This video provided the answer -- most of the files on the internet do not provide the right or most current information.
In summary, you want to get to the Settings-Configuration menu on your Nokia S40 phone. Set one access point and call it AT&T Internet or whatever you want. Go into Bearer Setting and set Packet data access pt. to "wap.cingular". Network type IPv4, Authentication type Normal, and User name to "wap@cingulargprs.com". Leave password blank.

If anyone wants instructions on how to get the GMail app on this phone, just leave a comment. However, after setting my phone up correctly so I could use the standard Nokia email app, I discovered that it worked fine for my needs.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Come On, Man! Amazon's Customer Centric Email is Decidedly NOT!!

Wow.  I've had a nightmarish experience with Amazon.  If you have a problem with Amazon that falls out of their ordinary customer service abilities, FORGET IT!!  Count on being sucked into a 21st-century vortex from which no customer satisfaction will be possible.

Here's my situation, and you have to love the ironic Amazon signature at the bottom of the email:

We're Building Earth's Most Customer-Centric Company"

Basically, I used Amex Rewards points to buy an item on Amazon. It should not have happened, but Amazon withdrew points to make my Rewards balance negative. A $25 purchase on Amazon will thus cost me $75 to clear off my Rewards Balance. I called Amex. They connected me to Amazon. Amazon kept sending me emails like the one below, which said they needed more information from me, but did not give me any way to contact them.

Greetings from Amazon.com.
To process your refund for order 106-xxx-72343-333xx, we require some additional information regarding the payment method that we are attempting to use for the refund.

This refund is for the following item(s):
Item: SDHC card
Quantity: 1
Reason for refund: Item billing error

Here's a breakdown of your refund for this item: Item Refund: $25.41

Thank you for your patience and assistance in this matter.

Sincerely, Amazon.com
We're Building Earth's Most Customer-Centric Company

Note: this e-mail was sent from a notification-only e-mail address that cannot accept incoming e-mail. Please do not reply to this message.

So, Amazon needs more information from me, but does not provide any way for me to get this information to them. That's hardly "Customer-Centric."

Amazon is hell-bent on not allowing customers to call back or hold its representatives or supervisors accountable. It took me literally six calls and two emails to speak to four Amazon representatives and two supervisors to feel like I may have resolved this problem.

I am very hard of hearing, so I rarely answer the phone. Instead, I call someone back when I am at home and can use a special handset that amplifies calls. This presents huge problems when companies like Amazon and Comcast refuse to give ways to call them back. Comcast is the worst, but my experience with Amazon has shaken my faith in them.