Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Beware of Electronic Toll Roads When Driving in the Orlando Area!

I had to travel and attend a diving show convention in Orlando, Florida a few weeks ago.  Sorry, but there is very little reason to travel to Orlando.  Maybe you have to go there for business, maybe the kids would like to visit Disneyworld, or maybe the cheap airfares there will help you attain elite status on your preferred airline.  Personally, I've never been a fan of this rather colorless city, and I will strive to stay away even more from now on.

There are toll roads in Florida, and particularly around the Orlando area, where a driver from out-of-town is given no notice whatsoever that he or she is going to be charged, no notice whatsoever that he or she is about to enter a toll road, and no notice that he or she HAS been charged.  Here's what happened to me.

I was in Orlando and drove to Jacksonville to meet a client.  I've set my Garmin unit, which I carry with me when traveling and renting cars, to avoid toll roads.  Nevertheless, for some reason, it routed me to go east on FL-528 and then north on Hwy 417.  Both of these are toll roads, and both are electronic -- meaning that there are no toll booths and no cash collection booths.

From Wikipedia, I see that both of these highways are toll roads, charging $6.75 and $3.25 for the use of the road.  I also went to Google Maps after the trip.  Google Maps, as opposed to my Garmin, routed me directly through Orlando -- no toll roads, and it would have been a faster trip.  I attach the route that my Garmin had me go.  Google Maps even showed me that the route I was on had tolls.  The Garmin did not show me this.  This is a good reason to use Google Maps on an iPad or iPhone with a cellular internet connection rather than a Garmin.  I've probably bought the last Garmin that I will ever buy, after this experience.  And like I said, no more Orlando for me if I can help it.

I returned my rental car thinking that all was fine.  A month later, on my credit card statement, I see a charge for $9.95.  I was going to dispute the charge (see posts from various forums below) but after doing my research, I think that the charge is valid and am going to pay it.

Here are some posts from various forums about the toll roads in Florida, and how Avis and other car rental companies might be taking advantage of the situation.

Beware of AVIS - unexpected hidden E-Toll tags charges

http://www.tripadvisor.com/ShowTopic-g34515-i19-k3479165-Beware_of_AVIS_unexpected_hidden_E_Toll_tags_charges-Orlando_Florida.html
 Mar 17, 2010, 6:44 AM
I think that most have missed the point.

The poser (sic, the writer clearly means "poster') clearly indicates that he is aware that he has to pay tolls when using a toll road , and where to pay them.

But seems unaware of is that nearly all rental companies offer the facility of pre paying tolls with the hire car. This is a standard charge of $10 per day ( I think + tax ), or a weekly rate. this enables drivers of hire cars to drive straight through the sun pass lane without having to stop and pay. This charge is for every day weather or not you use a toll road any particular day or not. As rental cars are not fitted with the necessary transponder to pay each ossacion. (sic)

This Toll pay by rental companies is advertised as "Offered" but in fact in many cases is a standard additional charge on bills, and the hirer has to ask to have it removed. Like ticking the box to NOT to recive e-mails.

This assumes he knows its on there in the first place, cos he he often not told.

It is very often " NOT Offered" because most renters turn down the offer..

I bit like the roadside emergency assistance. And Free car.

In short "Another Scam" to get money out of visitors.

Before leaving the rental counter you should always ask the person serving you to explain in detail your invoice, and make sure you know what if anything you have to pay on return. If you have a mobile phone record this conversation and ask the person their name. then write it on the paper work they give you. Just so that if there is any dispute. you know who served you, But more importantly what they told you.

I always tell them I am making a record.


Another post:
If your totally convinced that you didn't go through a toll without paying, then I would ask for phographic evidence, Avis can't help as they aren't the ones that charged you for it.

Thanks for your clarification. I am pretty sure I paid by cash everytime I went through the toll. Where do you suggest I should ask for the photo evidence? From the Toll company or Avis?

 Some of the tool booths where you pay are on the very far right where you have to actually smei exit to poay them then merge back on. (sic)


A third post: 
It is easy to do this, so you may have missed a toll and they have chrged it with a 'service charge'. You go toff lucky, may who rent with other fuirms are charged $25. It is easy to pay these (if you know or suspect you have missed one) while still in florida. But once you are back, they go thru the owner of the car.
 
A last post: 
Ask Avis to provide the phto evidence to you and in the mantime disopute the charge with your card company who will 'out it on hold' while the matter is investigated. As the owner of record, avis can request it from the toll authority involved.


Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Microsoft Office 2011 for Mac Stops Working on my Mac; Microsoft Customer Service Blames Their Spy Website!

Wow.  It seems that Microsoft monitors the software that you purchase from them and deactivates it remotely.  Here's the story that just happened:



I tried to use my Microsoft Office 11 Mac software today (Word) which has been working on my Mac Mini for many months.  Instead of opening as usual, I was confronted with a window asking me to enter my product key.  I had my product key on file and entered it.  When I tried to activate the software, I was told that "online activation did not complete successfully because the product key has been used the maximum number of times permitted."  

I then tried phone activation.  I entered the 9 sets of 4 numbers or so.  The robot voice asked me how many computers I had used this software on.  I answered "two."   The computer voice then told me  "Thank you.  Goodbye." and hung up. 

I have used this software on my MacBook Pro and my Mac Mini (Mac Pro before then) for a couple of years at least.  I've deactivated the software when upgrading computers and have kept records of the product IDs issued and the messages I received when deactivating. 

I tried going online to see if perhaps I am using the software on too many computers.  I couldn't figure it out.  So I called.  After much trouble trying to get the robot to get me to a real person, I reached a woman in India.  I recorded this conversation.  She told me the following and confirmed the following:

1.  I have purchased a copy of Microsoft Office 11 Mac software and have been using it on my Mac Mini for several months with no problems.

2.  She said that their website for activating this software was down and I needed to try again, or call to see what the status was, in 24 hours.

3.  I asked, and she confirmed twice, that this was not subscription software, but regardless, this software had checked back with Microsoft at some point and de-activated itself.  I therefore needed to re-activate it again.  This seems to me to be blatantly, flagrantly, and ridiculously illegal; or at least it should raise a real furor with anyone who uses Microsoft software.  Perhaps this support person was wrong, but I repeated myself several times to be sure of the answers and recorded the conversation. 

If a user buys Microsoft software (not on a subscription basis) and Microsoft has this software check back with this severs secretly to de-activate it, then this seems illegal and outrageous.  I purchased this software legally and am unable to use it for at least another 24 hours, not to mention having to spend valuable time to get it working again.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Review of Various Saeco Espresso Coffee Machines: The Aroma, Vienna, and Odea Giro

  I own several espresso machines, as I have put espresso machines in my home, my office, and our summer house.  I’ve used Saeco Aroma, Saeco Vienna, and my newest purchase is this Saeco Odea Giro machine. 

First, all of these machines are capable of making good coffee – far better than any coffee brewed in standard American coffee drip machines.  You will definitely taste the difference between espressos that you make with this machine over standard brews.  Much better.  However, don't expect much from the frother (panarello).  None of these machines will produce the rich, dense latte froth that you will get in the best coffee bars (I don't count Starbucks or Cutter Point to be "the best."). 

Saeco Aroma machines (the least expensive of the three I’ve tried) require you to grind your own beans or to buy an espresso grind.  This is the minimum machine that you want for good home-quality espressos -- which again, will not be as good as the best coffee bars -- but will be damn good.  This requires you to tamp the coffee grinds yourself, to dump the grinds, and rinse the filter holder, but in all other respects, it's as easy as the more expensive Saeco Vienna and Giro machines. 

The Saeco Vienna and Giro are called superautomatica machines, because they do just about all the work for you (supposedly).  The superautomatic machines will grind the beans, tamp them, and then give you a shot of espresso and dump the grinds into a bin.  However, they require almost as much upkeep as the simpler Aroma machines -- the water holder is smaller, the machines are more finicky and require constant cleaning etc.  The quality of the coffee is the same.  What is important is a well-made machine and 15 bars of pressure. 

I like the Saeco Vienna machine very much.  Both it and the Giro require you to keep an eye on the water supply (the holder for the water is a bit small in both machines, so you do have to replenish the water supply fairly frequently), and to regularly clean out the used grounds, and dump excess water.  The Vienna machine works well, produces great coffee, and is not so finicky that I have to constantly fiddle with it.  It works so well, without complaint, that I often forget to refill the water supply or dump the grounds. 

Unfortunately, the Saeco Giro is one of those “new, improved” models that is much worse than the original.  I hear that Saeco got purchased by Philips, the Dutch corporation.  I’ve rarely bought anything made by the Philips brand that worked well, and the Saeco Giro is no exception.  This thing is irritating in the extreme.  The water basket is small, so you have to refill it every two days.  The machine has about six different sensors that will tell the machine that something is wrong; when something is wrong, a red exclamation point will come on, and it is then up to you to peruse the manual to figure out what is wrong.  This goddamn red light turns on just about every single time I make an espresso (I drink about three per day).  The causes of the alarm are as follows: low water level in the water holder, a random amount of water in the water “dump” area; the drip tray or ground tray or bean holder slightly out of place; low level of beans, etc. 

I really wish I had bought a Vienna rather than this machine from hell.  I don’t even think that it makes as good coffee as the Vienna.  Oh, I almost forgot the most frustrating part of this machine – in their wisdom, the designers decided that every time you turn this machine on, it will spurt out hot water before spurting out the espresso.  Therefore you have to put a cup under the spout to collect this used, hot water; then you have to put your espresso cup under the spout to actually get the espresso.  Don’t buy this machine.  Get the Vienna or something else. 

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Great Phrases, German and English

This is from Wired magazine.  I found these words humorous, and they describe feelings I've had before but never described to anyone else.  It's great when  you realize that other folks have the same feelings. 

Wort-Verwurstung (Word Sausage-Making)
"For true specificity, you have to go to German, where the grammar allows for seemingly endless compound constructions.  That's what Ben Schott did when compiling his new book, Schottenfreude: German Words for the Human Condition." 

Here are a couple of my favorites:

bostdruck (guest-pressure): The exhausting effort of being a good houseguest. 

Speichelgleichmut (saliva-stoicism): Pretending you haven't been accidentally spat on in conversation. 

Monday, November 11, 2013

Hilton and Hampton Inn, Your Little Things Are Driving Us Crazy

Did I say that the little things about the Hampton Inns will drive me crazy? I recently stayed at  the Hampton Inn at the Gateway Center near the Orlando airport.  This is a brand new building and the room and furnishings were great.  It had nearly none of the problems of the other Hampton Inn near the Convention Center that I stayed at (see previous blog).  The Hampton Inns are a brand of Hilton Hotels.  They are pretty good, but all their rules drove me crazy during my stay.  Here’s the scenario:


You have had a long, tiring day.  It's dark.  You find the hotel.  The parking lot is pretty full.  You just want to park, get your stuff, and collapse in a room that is not stifling hot.   You have a lot of stuff since you are a diver and a photographer.  So parking fairly close to the hotel entrance is important. 

You see a parking space near to the hotel entrance!  Finally, something has gone easy today.  You nose in, only to see the sign: nope, this is a handicapped space.  OK, you are used to that.  

Oh, you see another space near the front of the hotel!  You cruise over there, nose in, only to see another sign: RESERVED FOR HYBRID VEHICLES ONLY.  Arrgh! 

You back out, see yet another space within reasonable walking distance of the hotel entrance, get your car there, enter the space, get out, and then you notice the sign for this space: DIAMOND ELITE PARKING ONLY.”  You scream silently (or if you are in your car, loudly” to no one in particular, but really, at this petty crap designed to fool and irritate you by Hilton’s Hampton Inn executives.  You leave your car in the Diamond Member space, because you’ll be damned if you are going to move again.




One final note, Hampton Inn: If you allow a guest a late checkout, then don’t lock him out of the outer doors after he swims at noon, causing him to wait outside the outer door from the pool, pounding on the door for 15 minutes, and finally making him hike all the way around to the hotel entrance in his bare feet, swimsuit, and towel.  And then when you give him a replacement key, how about making sure that it works so he doesn’t have to walk up to his room in his bare fee, swimsuit, and wet towel, only to find out that he can't get into his room because you programmed the key incorrectly?!  Then he has to go back down to the front desk, still wet, still in his swim suit and towel, and ask for another key to be issued.  All because he went swimming at 12:14pm, your checkout time is 12 noon, but you promised him a late checkout at 2pm.  Then he has to go back up to his room, likely waiting for the elevator for 10 minutes since you've scheduled maintenance on two of the three elevators at the busiest time of the day.   Why cancel his room card when he is at your pool, after you’ve promised him that he can check out at 2pm?  Do you think that this would be somewhat aggravating? 

Be Aware of Hotel Fees and What Resort and Parking Fees Add to the Total Stay Cost

I am a longtime traveler, a former member of the Society of American Travel Writers, and I have stayed in hotels ranging from the ritzy Four Seasons Resort at Hualalai to a Motel 6 in the heart of a dangerous part of Los Angeles.  I don’t believe in spending a lot of money for a night in a hotel, but I also don’t want to stay in motels that are so depressing that I want to hang myself.  I just want hotels that are clean, safe, and comfortable.  I am therefore a big fan of hotels ranging from the Westin and Hampton Inn chains down to La Quinta and Super 8 motels. 

The La Quinta hotels deserve special acclaim because they normally (not all) allow pets with no extra charge.  But beware, some LQ hotels state that they are pet-friendly, but when you arrive, they give you a form stating that only pets under 50 pounds are allowed.  I therefore had to sneak my 100-pound and 70-pound yellow Labrador retrievers into my room for the night and feel like a criminal.  That's BS. 

I almost NEVER pay more than$150 per night for any hotel room.  As an example, I recently stayed at a Westin hotel near Dulles Airport for $68, using nothing except the website booking.com to find this great deal.  I’ve never had a bad experience staying at a Westin property – the rooms are always clean and the furnishings in great shape. 

I generally like Hampton Inns, because you almost always get a clean room, clean sheets, a good firm bed, and friendly, professional service at the front desk at a decent price.  However, I’ve now stayed at three different Hampton Inns in Orlando in the past few months, and I have one piece of advice regarding this chain now -- look on TripAdvisor and booking.com for recent reviews, and only choose a Hampton Inn that is newer.  The older ones generally show their age and don't have things like working air conditioners and ice machines.
 
Hampton Inn at Gateway Village near the Orlando Airport is an example of a newly-built hotel.  The furnishings and quality of a newly-built Hampton Inn rivals that of a Westin, and you can generally stay at a Hampton Inn for far less than staying at a Westin. 

You don’t get dinged for things like resort fees, parking fees, and wifi internet fees at Hampton Inns; when you stay at a Hilton or Westin, be prepared to pay a lot more than the quoted rate for these fees.  As an example, I recently priced a Friday night stay at a Hilton, Westin, and Hampton Inn in Orlando.  All hotels were very close to the Orlando Convention Center. 

The Hilton Orlando Convention Center had a rate that was $94 on booking.com, my favorite site for finding hotels (it has a terrific map feature that shows all hotels and the rate).  On closer inspection, however, I discovered that I would have to pay a $20 resort fee and another $16 to $23 to pay for parking.  The resort fee includes use of the pool and wifi internet access.  The total would have been $130 plus tax ( I would have self-parked rather than paying the higher price for a valet). 

The Westin Orlando had a rate of $109 for the same night.  I would have to bring my own internet service or pay $14.95 to use the hotel’s wifi internet.  Parking at the hotel would cost another $15 to $23.  Total price for me, since I would have used my own internet hotspot (using a free FreedomPop wifi modem), would have been $124 plus tax. 

The Hampton Inn on Universal Blvd, which is a bit farther away from the Convention Center than the above two hotels, had a rate of $92 for the same night.  For that rate, using the pool, the wifi internet, and parking was all included at no charge.  Now, the Hampton is just a bit too far away from the Convention Center to comfortably walk (it is 0.7 miles away) without arriving in a sweat.  This was more than a little hassle.  You could wait for the iridetrolley, which is an evil pain in the butt that charges $2 (it does pick up passengers near the Hampton every 30 minutes but it makes you wait until you give up, then drives past just as you start walking back to your hotel); or take a taxi to the convention center for $8.  I could have parked at the Hilton for $16 or paid to park at a nearby garage (but I could not find any parking garages!).  I just drove to one of the hotels across from the convention center and parked there, risking my car getting towed.  

Summary: 
Hilton, advertised price on booking.com was $94, total price would be $130 plus taxes.  
Westin, advertised price was $109, total price would have been $124 plus taxes.  
Hampton Inn, advertised price was $92, total price would have been $92 plus taxes.  
 

The End of Civilized Society

Signs from a United Club lounge.  Is it now necessary to have signs telling people not to do uncivilized things?  I guess so. 



Sunday, November 10, 2013

It's the Little Things That Will Make Me Stop Traveling


I am a longtime traveler.  I don't travel lightly.  I usually have at least three cases plus three carryons of photographic gear and computer stuff.  Here's a typical hotel stay that any other longtime traveler can understand. 

 I generally like Hampton Inns, because you almost always get a clean room, clean sheets, a good firm bed, and friendly, professional service at the front desk at a decent price.  But the older the property, the more problems; and Hilton, who owns Hampton Inns, is hellbent on making life harder for all travelers other than their elite travelers.  

So, first night at the first Hampton Inn in Orlando.  Here's the scenario: 

You’re tired.  You’ve had a long flight with a screaming baby in the seat behind you.  The baby not only screams, but his brother is directly behind you, kicking your seat the entire trip.  He is impervious to glares and entreaties to the harassed mother does not solve the problem.

You take multiple shuttle buses, wrestling your three giant cases of photo gear and books on each bus, to finally get a rental car.  You make your way to the hotel.  You are very, very tired and do not look forward to wrestling all your gear from the car through the parking lot to the hotel and then to your room.  The room is old, and the air conditioning doesn't work well.  I try all night to sleep in a room that is about 76 degrees and humid.   After a bad night of sleep due to the ill-functioning air conditioning in my top-floor room, I asked to change to a room that had a better air conditioner.  The hotel clerk changed me to another room on the third floor.  
The new room, on the third floor, did not reek of cigarette smoke like my other room, but I soon encountered problems. The room was hot when I arrived.  The air conditioning unit had a sign with large letters that said “THIS UNIT IS CONTROLLED BY WALL THERMOSTAT  I searched and searched for a wall thermostat with no luck.  I finally asked a hotel staff person passing by to show me where the thermostat was.  He instantly reached for the controls underneath the sign to turn the air conditioning down to a lower temperature.  When I asked him why there was a sign on the A/C unit saying "DO NOT TOUCH", he said that some rooms had thermostats, and some did not. 


The ice machine on the third floor did not work.  I tried it several times.  It made nice loud humming engine sounds like it was working, but it never would give up any ice.  I had to trek down the stairs in my bare feet to the second floor, not a huge deal, but kind of nasty when I stepped into the puddle of old soda by the second floor ice machine.  

The TV in my "newer" room was incredibly old, a real relic.  I show a picture of the remote, which is made of metal.  It was so old and overused that the paint had been rubbed off by all the hands that had held it.  The TV was so old that the picture itself would not even fill the entire screen.  Only 50 percent of the TV screen area was filled by the actual TV picture.  I could barely see the picture, and the picture itself was unfocused and unsharp, kind of like watching a small old crappy minature TV from the 1970s.  The sound was so bad as to be unintelligible; I gave up trying to hear the audio.  I attach a photograph of the TV showing how small the picture was in the TV screen; and I attach a photograph of the remote, showing how ancient and worn it was. 

The refrigerator was a pain in the butt.  I put a can of soda in the door, but I discovered that every time I opened the door, the can would come shooting out.  It turns out that the refrigerator door was missing the small bar  that normally holds cans and bottles in place in the door. 

These are all little things.  But it is the little things that drive you crazy when you are traveling.  When you’ve arrived at your hotel after a long flight, you just want a hotel clerk that will check you in quickly; you want a room that is cool enough to sleep in and where you can control the temperature; you want a hotel where the management is thoughtful enough to schedule its elevator maintenance during non-busy hours; and you want a hotel that advertises a swimming pool -- to actually have a  swimming pool that you can use.  I can understand if a swimming pool is undergoing maintenance, but in such a case, give me the correct information so I don’t have to undertake a hike to another hotel only to find that hotel’s pool is closed also!  And making sure that your ice machines work helps also. 

The hotel I chose, the Hampton Inn Orlando Convention Center, was old and creaky, was  full up with large groups of screaming high schoolers and busloads of senior citizens; and its management either does not care or is not careful about things like scheduling elevator and pool maintenance at the best (less busy) times.  I moved to another hotel. 

Did I say that the little things about the Hampton Inns will drive me crazy? I changed hotels to the Hampton Inn at the Gateway Center near the airport.  This is a brand new building and the room and furnishings were great.  It had nearly none of the problems of the other hotel.  But, still, here’s the scenario:

You find the hotel.  You see a parking space near to the hotel entrance!  Finally, something has gone easy today.  You nose in, only to see the sign: nope, this is a handicapped space.  OK, you are used to that.  Oh, you see another space near the front of the hotel!  You cruise over there, nose in, only to see another sign: THIS SPACE RESERVED FOR HYBRID VEHICLES ONLY.  Arrgh!  You back out, see yet another space within reasonable walking distance of the hotel entrance, get your car there, enter the space, get out, and then you notice the sign for this space: THIS SPACE RESERVED FOR HILTON DIAMOND MEMBERS ONLY.”  You scream silently (or if you are in your car, loudly” to no one in particular, but really, at this petty crap designed to fool and irritate you by Hilton’s Hampton Inn executives.  You leave your car in the Diamond Member space, because you’ll be damned if you are going to move again.




One final note, Hampton Inn: If you allow a guest a late checkout, then don’t lock him out of the outer doors after he swims at noon, causing him to wait outside the outer door from the pool, pounding on the door for 15 minutes, and finally making him hike all the way around to the hotel entrance in his bare feet, swimsuit, and towel.  And then when you give him a replacement key, how about making sure that it works so he doesn’t have to walk up to his room in his bare fee, swimsuit, and wet towel, only to find out that he can't get into his room because you programmed the key incorrectly?!  Then he has to go back down to the front desk, still wet, still in his swim suit and towel, and ask for another key to be issued.  All because he went swimming at 12:14pm, your checkout time is 12 noon, but you promised him a late checkout at 2pm.  Then he has to go back up to his room, likely waiting for the elevator for 10 minutes since you've scheduled maintenance on two of the three elevators at the busiest time of the day.   Why cancel his room card when he is at your pool, after you’ve promised him that he can check out at 2pm?  Do you think that this would be somewhat aggravating? 

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Do Not Enter the Pool If...

Hey, I am a big fan of Hampton Inns.  They are relatively inexpensive and generally are clean and comfortable.  You generally know what you are getting. 

One of the worst nights I ever had was in New Orleans, at a Doubletree hotel.  The walls were thin and for some reason folks would always slam their doors when leaving.  Maybe the doors slammed themselves.  Anyway, my wife and I were constantly being woken up by the sound of doors slamming down the hall. 

This pool sign is from the Hampton Inn in Orlando, that has seen better days.   Don't go in the pool if you have ...diarrhea!  Yikes!  Do people really need to be told this? 


Sunday, October 20, 2013

Updating a Windows Vista Computer to Windows 7: A Funny Error Message from Microsoft

I am actually impressed with Windows 7.  It does everything that I want it to, and it is fast and understandable. 

I own something like five Windows 7 laptops that come with Windows 7 Home Premium.  They are so inexpensive that it's easier to just buy one rather than try to buy a copy of Windows 7 and install it so that it will run in Parallels on my Mac.  Doing that raises all kinds of problems.  If you upgrade your hard drive in your Mac and have a copy of Windows 7 installed, for instance, from what I understand, you have to call Microsoft and explain the situation so that you can continue using your copy of Windows 7.  I've even heard that if you connect and disconnect an external hard drive, this can cause problems.  I am a bit more certain that if you install a copy of Windows 7 on your Mac using Parallels, changing certainly configurations on your Mac will cause the copy of Windows 7 to be inactivated -- necessitating a call and possible hassles with Microsoft. 

I have an old HP Slimline desktop computer that runs Vista and came with a TV tuner.  This was my first experience with Windows Media Center and using a Windows machine as a digital video recorder (DVR) rather than paying rent and monthly subscription fees for a Comcast DVR or a Tivo.  WMC is an excellent program, and with it, I had my own DVR on a laptop for years. 

I actually pulled my old Vista machine out of storage a few weeks ago to test it and possibly sell it.  I've upgraded the machine from Windows Vista to Windows 7.  The process took a long time but was relatively painless. 

I did encounter this hilarious error message. "To check for updates, you must first install an update for Windows Update."








Friday, October 18, 2013

Comcast Website Puts Customers in Infinite Loops: Videos to Prove it

Comcast tries, I think.  I posted a complaint about my frustrations with their service in a blog post a couple of weeks ago, and someone from Comcast actually commented on it and gave me an email to contact.  After writing to that email address, I actually got a call from a nice, helpful, professional person in Comcast’s escalated customer service department.  She had a technician in their “Tech Central” department call me.  Fortunately, I actually answered the phone when he called, something I seldom do since I get few phone calls and I generally screens calls rather than answer the phone. 

So a suggestion – Comcast – most people are like me and don’t answer the phone – we screen calls.  Please let your customers call your technicians back.  If you don’t do this, then you make life much, much harder for everyone because of the phone tag. 

Here’s their email: we_can_help@cable.comcast.com


I obtained a Cablecard today from Comcast’s local office, so that I could use my Windows 7 laptop with Windows Media Center as a DVR once again (see my earlier blog post for more). 

This blog post contains videos that I recorded to show just how bad Comcast’s websites and phone activation lines are. 

Ever heard of an infinite loop?  That’s when you code and are not good at coding, and make a mistake.  Your program repeats itself endlessly.  Comcast seems to be particularly good at putting its customers into infinite loops on their websites. 

Here’s the video.  I am using my Firefox browser and trying to activate my new Cablecard.  I’ve already tried the phone twice and been disconnected (more details on that experience below).  Here’s what’s going on in this video.  I’ve gone to the Comcast activation site, entered my account number and phone number (BTW, Comcast, most of us have more than one phone number and so if you always ask us for the phone number associated with our account, that can be extremely frustrating, ESPECIALLY if we don’t keep rigorous track of what phone number we gave to you.   Even worse is if we have two different homes and mistakenly give you our cell phone for one house, and you use that phone to go and change the account at our other home unknowing to us). 

Anyway, I am on the Comcast activation page.  I see that they have too many set top boxes on the page.  The new Cablecard is the one at the top, and I’ve clicked it to activate now.  I’ve deselected all the other boxes either because they are already activated and working or I don’t have them plugged in (Comcast shipped me six rather than three DTA boxes for some reason). 

Because I only want to activate ONE item, the dialog comes up asking me if I want to bookmark this page and continue.  I click that box.  It just shunts me back to the activation page.  Over and over and over again.  If I click the other answer, which is “RETURN TO ACTIVATION” then, well, I go back to the activation page.  Over and over again.  Infinite loop. 
video

I then tried this in the Chrome browser.  I was actually able to get out of this loop using the Chrome browser.  I have noticed that with Comcast, you often are not able to get their websites to do what you want until you try different browsers.  Same with the government.  But here’s the thing – just about every website (other than Comcast's) works with Firefox. 


Activating a Comcast Cablecard to Work with Windows Media Center and a SiliconDust HD Homerun Prime Cablecard Tuner.

I am writing down the various steps that I have had to take to use the above DVR gear with Comcast, in hopes that this will help other folks. 

So, Comcast decided (just because they can) to encrypt the channels that they were previously required to broadcast unencrypted on the clearQAM channels over cable.

I previously had a nice setup using a SiliconDust HD Homerun dual tuner to take unencrypted HD signals; a Windows 7 laptop with the very nice software (that came free with every copy of Windows 7 Home Premium) Windows Media Center took the signals from the HomeRun tuner over my home network and recorded the shows.  In short, I had a Tivo without paying any membership fees. 

Once Comcast encrypted its signals, I had to work out a new solution.  After talking to Comcast support, I was told that even with my Limited Basic account (Comcast’s lowest tier of service), I could get what is called a Cablecard.  This turns out to be a PCMCIA card, something that you put inside a tuner box to decode the signal coming from Comcast.  SiliconDust makes an HD Homerun Prime box that accepts Cablecards.  I ordered one of these through Amazon, it arrived yesterday, today I got a Cablecard from the local Monterey office, and now I am back to watching and recording shows on my Windows 7 laptop using Windows Media Center. 

I encountered several problems in getting Windows Media Center set up with the new Cablecard and HD Homerun Prime tuner. 

1.  Trying to get Comcast on the phone to activate any new piece of gear is a real hassle.  This was no exception.  I describe my problems in a separate blog entry, complete with a video that gives some sense of how frustrating it is to try to contact Comcast. 

I did so this morning and have called the activation phone number three times, spending over an hour, trying to reach a person to have my Cablecard activated.  The phone tree keeps disconnecting me.  It's incredibly frustrating.

I then finally got my Cablecard activated by going to:
www.comcast.com/activate

which is exactly what the Comcast rep in the local office told me not to do.  I had problems doing this with my Firefox browser at first (an infinite loop), but using Chrome, I was able to activate the Cablecard. 

2.  I encountered numerous error messages when trying to set up WMC with the Cablecard tuner.  Here are some web pages that helped with various error messages:

a.  Error message: “Your computer is not digital cable ready.  You will not be able to set it up for use with a CableCard.” 

One website discussed going into Control Panel – System –Administration and re-running the Windows Experience utility again.  This utility determines if your computer has enough horsepower and graphics power to work well. 

This did not help me.  I found this website that explained my problem:

http://blogs.windows.com/windows/b/extremewindows/archive/2010/12/30/digital-cable-advisor-lets-you-know-if-your-windows-7-pc-is-digital-cable-ready.aspx

This website explained how to enable digital cable for my Windows Media Center laptop, but then I enountered this error message:

b.  “graphics fail: your graphics card or driver doesn’t support content protection.”

Now, I know that my laptop is fine; I used to run Windows Media Center on it and view all kinds of shows in HD.  I found this website that provided a solution to the problem.  After becoming a registered user on this website, I was able to download a zip file that bypassed the DCA (digital cable advisor) settings in Windows Media Center: 

missingremote.com/guide/override-digital-cable-advisor-windows-media-center-7

c.  I was almost there.  I ran “set up TV signal” in Windows Media Center again, and I got through most steps until encountering this error message:

“the PlayReady update was incomplete.  You will not be able to watch or record protected content until the update is successful. 

I found the answer to my problem at this website:
http://answers.microsoft.com/en-us/windows/forum/windows_8-winapps/playready-in-media-center-will-not-update/288f025e-1543-4152-b269-e94427d1be4b

Method 3
Open up Windows "Services" via Control Panel > Administrative Tools > Services.
With Media Center Open and Showing "The PlayReady update was incomplete. Do you want to try again?" Go to the "Services" panel you just opened and scroll all the way down to "Windows Media Center Receiver Services", double click on it, then click "Stop"

Navigate to the ReadyPlay HIDDEN folder (C:\ProgramData\Microsoft\PlayReady) and then delete the mspr.hds file.  {I could not find this file or folder on my Windows 7 Machine, but as it turns out, just following these steps worked!}

Go back to the STILL OPEN & RUNNING, Media Center and click "Yes" and "Next" to the Update PlayReady question. It should immediately zip past and say update complete & you can watch and record copy protected.


3.  Once I was able to get past the above errors, I got a message that I had to enter a product key, which was entered automatically. 

product key MW4F-r2T2...xxxxxx : WMC automatically entered this. 


After three hours of work, I am back to where I was before October 1, which is when Comcast ridiculously decided to encrypt all the broadcast channels on clear QAM.  Thanks for all the work, Comcast!  At least your escalated technical services folks are of some help.  Forget trying to get someone to help you on your first call, though.  See my other blog entry for my experience in this regard.  

Update: My Cablecard and HD Homerun Prime setup worked for a few hours on Friday after I went through the above processed.  I seemed to activate the Cablecard on Comcast's website, www.comcast.com/activate.  However, I kept getting calls from Comcast's elevated tech support (which I missed) that I needed to call in to give pairing codes.  Sure enough, around 8pm, I was no longer able to view channels on my WMC setup using a Cablecard, Windows Media Center running on a Windows 7 laptop, and SiliconDust HD Homerun Prime.  

I had been told to call this number to activate my Cablecard, but I gave up after three tries: (855) 652-3446.  If you like to listen to weird clicks and computer tones, being commanded to enter various numbers, put on hold while listening to more weird clicks, and finally being disconnected after patiently waiting, perhaps you can try this number. 
 
But the service tech left this other number for me to call to "pair" the Cablecard -- (877) 405-2298.  I called this number, I got through fairly easily, and the technician actually was fairly knowledgeable and helpful!  She had me go into WMC and read off some serial numbers.  After ten minutes or so, I was done and my channels were back working.  I now am back to where I was before October 1, $150 poorer (I had to buy a new HD Homerun Prime) and about 24 total hours spent on figuring everything out.  Why, Comcast, why waste your customers' time so much?  Why?  
 

Thursday, October 17, 2013

A Very Useful Mac Tip



Mac tips:
huge Mac tip: to choose a startup drive, upon starting up, hold down the option key (alt key on PC keyboards).  This will bring up a screen that gives you a choice of startup drives

I've long installed different versions (an old and a new) of the Mac OS on different partitions or different drives in my Mac Pro tower machines.  This lets me use newer applications and new features, while I can start up my machine in an older operating system to use older applications that no longer run on newer machines.  Right now, for example, I am running OS 10.6.8 Snow Leopard on the same machine that has OS 10.7 Lion running.  I can boot into either operating system to use older or newer applications that may not run otherwise.  

One huge tip that I came across was the above.  I've found that when installing a new operating system, this tip works most frequently, almost without fail, to choose the operating system that you want.  Other methods, such as holding down the C key to start up from a DVD, or choosing the startup drive/operating system in System Preferences, only works about half the time.  In fact, I remember countless periods of frustration where I was trying to install a new operating system from an Apple DVD, and holding down the  C key did not work.  

The only other method that works as well as the above is connecting a Mac to another Mac with a Firewire drive, then 

Small but incredibly useful applications that I use all the time, which are rarely mentioned in the press: 

Carbon Copy Cloner -- I use this utility all the time to back up my drives and to create mirror images of my drives.  

SnapZ Pro -- an incredibly useful utility which lets me capture parts of my screen.  I can even record video clips up to 2 hours long using this utility; it captures video that is playing on my screen at a choice of screen rates (I use 30 fps) and then converts those thousands of screen grabs into a very watchable and hearable Quicktime video.  

Thunderbird, a great email program that lets me organize my emails into different folders.  I can archive old folders of emails using the great Import/Export Tools too.  Thunderbird is just awesome.  Having an email program that grabs emails and then stores them on your laptop, as opposed to using a web-based email program, is great.  If I am traveling on a boat, for instance, and I get a wireless signal temporarily, I can download all my emails onto my laptop using Thunderbird, then read and reply to those emails offline.  Later, when I am online again, I can send all emails.  

I use an iPad to read emails when I am running around town, but I have found that if you only use an iPhone or iPad to view emails, then you will not organize those emails into folders, and you will not remember the history of emails.  This might be OK when communicating with friends, but it certainly will not work if you are pounding out a contract with a client, for instance.