Posts belonging to Category Technology

iCloud iAnger…

Seems that things aren’t all unicorns and roses in Apple land since the introduction of iCloud.  A friend of mine has a bone or two to pick with Apple support.

If that link fails, try this one.

Hackers Elect Futurama’s Bender to the Washington DC School Board | PCWorld

This, folks, is why I still insist on paper ballots.

Hackers Elect Futurama’s Bender to the Washington DC School Board | PCWorld

Please, Not Again!

I just realized that I am going to have to call SiriusXM customer support.  After my last horrible customer service experience with them, I am less than eager to go another round, but with the purchase of the Flex it will be inevitable since I have to deactivate the XM receiver in the Avalanche (which I no longer have) and somehow get the Flex’s Sirius receiver put on the account.  My research so far on this topic is extremely discouraging.  It seems that despite “merging” the two companies, the billing still runs as separate entities.  Which means that if you have an account with XM, you can’t put a Sirius radio on it (and vice versa).  It appears that you have to open a new account for the Sirius radio and cancel the XM account.

And to put the icing on the cake, the latest online buzz (via forums and Facebook) is that SiriusXM phone support has a serious theft problem.  The reps are under such intense pressure to sell you additional equipment or services that they will often add additional billing or equipment to your account that you did not authorize.  There are numerous complaints from people who called to cancel or change service who ended up being billed for things they did not authorize.

I’ve submitted a question via their email page, to see if what I want will be remotely possible (there are also hints online that they will really merge their operations “real soon now”).  But I am not holding my breath waiting for an answer.

Update: They got back to me a day later (not too bad), but the answer was as I expected: you cannot put a Sirius radio on an “XM account” and vice versa.  So this morning I girded for battle and dialed their so-called “Customer Care” number.  After 45 minutes, two transfers and two hang-ups, I finally succeeded on the third try in canceling the XM radio account I’ve had for the last 9 years.  Or at least that’s what I was told.  I will anxiously await the “7 to 10 business days” they claim it takes for the refund to make it back to my credit card to verify that it actually happened.  For now, I’ve got a free trial of  Sirius in the Flex, so my satellite radio needs are being met.  But I am dreading the day when I have to become a subscriber again.

Which is really sad, because when it comes to the actual service, it works fine when all the equipment is functioning.  It’s only when you have to contact customer service that the company fails so miserably.  Really, isn’t it a crappy reflection of their customer service that it took 45 minutes and getting hung up on twice to do something as simple as cancel an account?  Further, isn’t it even more crappy that the supposedly “merged” company can’t mix the two “accounts?”  If they weren’t so shabbily run, I wouldn’t have had to cancel an 9-year-old account just to change radios on my end.

Frankly, if I could find some way to reliably get “fresh” music (I quickly tire of using an iPod or other device), that had good customer service, I’d jump on it.

Real Info Rather Than Hysterics

While I’m not a nuclear expert I’ve always been interested in physics (and in fact while my degree is in Computer Science and Math, my minor was Physics, although that was back in the mists of time). So when I see the news media trying to report on the problems at the Fukushima Daiichi power plan in Japan, I get frustrated and start yelling at the TV (or the browser). Aside from scaring the dogs, though, it’s not very effective.

If you’re interested in learning more about the situation from people who know what they’re talking about, the Nuclear Science and Engineering department at MIT has created a blog to specifically address Fukushima Daiichi. It takes a little bit of time to read and digest the info, but it’s far better than what the news media has been giving us.


I have a TV mounted on the wall in the kitchen because I like to watch the local news while I’m in there (and because I kind of like to have some sort of background sound on even if it isn’t the news).  The problem is that there is no cable outlet in there, so I’ve struggled with OTA reception since the beginning.  However, since the introduction of digital TV the problem has gotten worse as digital is ‘all or nothing’ and in many cases the stations have moved to UHF, which tends to have less range than VHF.  The only channels I can receive in that position with even the best indoor antenna are 4 and 11, and even then they’re not reliable.  Any time we had high winds (or ice and snow) it changed the conditions just enough to cause channel 4 to fade in and out in a frustratingly random way (there was no way I could adjust the antenna to fix it).

If I’d wanted to continue to get OTA programming my only choice would be to mount an antenna on the roof and bring a line inside from it to the TV.  I didn’t really want to do that.  The next option would have been to tie into the FIOS service, but that would have required running coax cable to the location, and I also didn’t want to get into that kind of trouble or expense.

What changed the game recently was when I discovered a device called the HDHomeRun from a company called SiliconDust. It’s a network-attached ATSC tuner that will stream either OTA or clear-QAM channels to any computer on your network.  So when I found an older model on sale recently it gave me the idea that I could put a small computer in the kitchen running Linux and  MythTV and wirelessly stream the TV signal from the HDHomeRun.  And since the HDHomeRun could tune clear-QAM signals, it meant that I could tune the 23 non-encrypted channels that Verizon includes in the FIOS “Local” package without need of another cable box or an external antenna.

For those not familiar with it, MythTV is a free, open-source, software DVR.  It has a distributed network architecture and can work with a variety of computer-connected tuner and capture devices.  It can loosely be thought of as a roll-your-own TiVo.  It consists of two main components: a backend, which handles all the video capture duties; and a frontend, which is what displays the available streams.  It also has a pluggable architecture, so you can add additional features like the ability to view videos and photos, listen to music, browse the web, and view local weather forecasts.

Over the weekend I finally went ahead and set the whole thing up.  I installed MySQL and the MythTV backend on my desktop PC (which is a quad-core 3GHz Athlon with 8GB of RAM) and the MythTV frontend on a Foxconn NetBox-nT330i that I happened to have kicking around (it has a 30GB SSD and 2GB of RAM; it’s nearly silent–the only moving part is the processor fan).  Both systems are running Ubuntu 10.04 (LTS). The only glitch was that the version of MythTV included in the Ubuntu 10.04 repositories (v0.23) had issues with locking up when changing channels on the HDHomeRun.  I installed the Mythbuntu repository updater and updated to the latest revision of V0.24 which fixed it.

One of the neat features of the NetBox is that it’s so small that it can be mounted to the back of an LCD monitor using the VESA mounting holes and an included bracket.  For this setup I mounted it to the monitor and put the monitor on the shelf I’d been using for the TV.

So, at this point, whenever I want to watch live TV, the backend takes control of the HDHomeRun’s first tuner (the second is not yet connected to anything), streams the data to a disk buffer and feeds the buffered stream to the frontend.  This allows for pause and rewind of live TV.  An added benefit of all this is that I now have a full program guide as well as the ability to schedule recordings (via the frontend or via web browser), which the backend will handle and make available to the frontend on request.  I also have the ability to browse the web thanks to the MythTV browser plugin, which I think will come in handy for pulling up recipes.

It probably sounds more complicated than it actually is, but it really wasn’t that much effort.  But it’s the sort of thing that appeals to my inner geek.  Further, I already had all the equipment, other than the HDHomeRun, so it didn’t cost too much to set up (the HDHomeRun dual-tuner was on sale for $80 when I bought it; setting up a decent OTA outdoor antenna would likely have cost that much or more).

I still have a few things to do to smooth out the rough edges, though, as it’s not ready for use by non-geeks.  I have an infrared remote control hooked up to the frontend, and while you can do enough with it to tune live TV and watch videos, it still requires a keyboard to do a lot of stuff, so I need to get the IR mapping cleaned up enough to make it intuitive for those used to using a DVR.  I also am planning to take the NetBox off of the monitor and install an arm in place of the current shelf, which was originally installed for a small tube TV.  I’ll also route the wires better and make it a clean installation when I do.

An Odd New Limitation

When I logged into my online bill payment account today I saw a strange new warning:

Screen grab from Chase online bill payment service

(For those who can’t read the tiny print, it says, “The Online Bill Payment service should NOT be used to pay your local, state or federal taxes.”)

It doesn’t immediately make sense to me why this would be the case, since I’ve used this service to send to everything from major corporations to individuals.  They’ve got it set up so that it recognizes payees who can receive payment directly versus those who can’t.  If a payee can’t accept payment directly, the service will print and mail a check on your behalf.

The only thing I can think of is that perhaps some tax entities require additional documentation beyond an account reference number, in which case there might be a problem, since there’s no way for Chase to include anything beyond a memo on the check.  You’d expect people to know better, but I suppose that’s being naive.  In which case it would make sense to include the warning lest Chase get sued when someone’s tax payment goes off into never-never-land.

Even The Spammers Are Critics

One thing I’m enjoying about using WordPress is the Akismet spam filter.  So far it’s protected me from over 90 spam posts (in just about one month) with a 100% success rate (i.e. no false positives).  Interestingly, all of the spam that it’s caught appears to be entered by humans (or at least a fairly reasonable facsimile thereof).  They all use some fairly stock phrases that attempt to flatter you as to your content but that are completely unrelated to the topic of the post.  It comes across as really stilted and silly.

Anyhow, the spam sweatshops were especially busy last night, since there were 14 new spam comments in the filter awaiting my attention (I last emptied it around 5:00pm yesterday).  This one, in particular, though, caught my eye.  Not only do they have the audacity to try to shove this crap into my comments, but it’s kind of insulting to boot!

Dont acquire this the wrong way, but youre entirely boring me right here. Do not get me wrong, I imagine what you need to say is valid…completely! But, youve received to provide me a thing to believe about that involves pictures. You realize what they say, -A picture is worth a thousand phrases.- You could potentially cut down on the terms if you just gave me a few photographs.

If I’m so boring, then maybe you need to find another site to spam.  In the meantime, your comment is being routed to File 13 for proper consideration.

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Meditations On The Ways In Which XM Radio “Customer Service” Doth Suck

I received an email last night from XM Radio reminding me that the credit card I’m using with them is expiring.  This also reminded me that I needed to cancel the second radio on my account, since I’d taken that radio out of my home entertainment center a while back and had forgotten about it (and with automatic payments every quarter, it was easy for it to get lost in the noise).

Since I wanted to do two things, I decided to give their phone service a try, hoping against hope that it would be better than the last time I tried to use it.  When I called I got one of those obnoxious voice systems that expects you to talk to it.  I loathe these things with a passion.  First, I feel silly talking to a computer.  But more importantly, I have so little trust in customer service computer systems in the first place that putting a voice recognition system in front of it that half the time doesn’t understand what I’m saying feels like a recipe for disaster to me.  Finally, I know that most companies won’t let you cancel any kind of service without talking to a person, so why not skip the nonsense and get right to the person?

This system asked me for my phone number, and fortunately allowed me to key it in, along with my zip code.  Then it said that my credit card had expired and demanded that I say “yes” or “no” to the question of whether I wanted to update it now.  I simply hit zero, to see if it would break out and let me talk to a person.  I was pleasantly surprised that it worked.  At least at first.  Because it immediately put me on hold, and then dropped the line after about 30 seconds.  Since I’m a glutton for punishment, I tried this three or four more times and got the same result each time.

XM phone FAIL!

So, I went to and was bombarded with a landing page that used Flash video with sound.  This is what I consider a major sin of web design and a major irritant.

XM web design FAIL!

Once I got past that and onto the main XM page I logged into my account and was dumped into the account information page with a pop up that informed me that I needed to update my credit card info to continue.  However, the credit card info was inactive (grayed out) and I saw no obvious way to change it, so I clicked the “Change Info” button at the bottom of the page.  This turns out to be a major tactical blunder, as the system interpreted this as me wanting to save the data.  With a properly designed system this wouldn’t be a problem, but XM’s system LOCKS YOUR ACCOUNT FOR 10 MINUTES while it “updates.”  This means if you try to do anything but look at the account summary during that time you get a pop up that tells you the account is “being updated” and to wait for 10 minutes. 

XM system design FAIL!

So, after stewing for 10 minutes I went back into the account info page and finally saw the “Change” link above the credit card info which activated the data fields (and made some new ones visible).  I was able to enter the new expiration date and save the data.  Which was good.  But it locked the account again for another 10 minutes.  blank stare

After duly waiting ten minutes (actually, after impatiently hitting “Radios & Subscription” about 10 times), I was able to see the list of radios on the account.  But there is no way to cancel a radio from the website (I was afraid this would be the case, as it was this way the last time I tried to use their brain-dead site a couple of years ago; I was just hoping that they might have seen the error of their ways in the interim and that I might be able to avoid going back to XM phone hell). 

XM user experience FAIL!

As a parting gift, I discovered a bug with their caching/session code when I clicked back to the account summary page and I got another pop up informing me that my credit card had expired.  This did not inspire confidence, so just to be sure I logged out, closed the window, and logged in from another window to confirm that the changes had indeed been made (which means I had to go through the stupid Flash video landing page again, etc).

XM session caching FAIL!

At this point I’m already a bit annoyed and frustrated with them, and not very happy about having to go back to the phones.  But I’m nothing if not persistent.  So, once more into the breach, dear friends…

I dialed their 800 number and I got the phone company’s ‘unable to complete this call as dialed’ message.  WTF?  I checked the number and tried again.  Same result.  Hmm…

Waited a few minutes and tried again (counting the first attempts and the uncompleted calls, this is attempt number 8).  This time I got an actual person instead of Chatty Cathy the Computer.  He had a faint Indian accent, but was otherwise understandable.  Could this be an improvement?  Alas, this was not to be…

The person was nice enough, and took down the radio ID and looked up my account.  When he did he tried to confirm the information, which was weird because his computer showed my old phone number in Denton, which I hadn’t used since 2003 (this didn’t give exactly give me the warm fuzzies about their systems, since I was still on the website which showed my current phone number in the account summary; further, Chatty Cathy the Computer was able to look up my account using my current number earlier).

XM multiple system synchronization FAIL!

Whatever the issue, he updated the number (which scares me deep down in the dark chambers of my IT Architect heart) and said he’d have to transfer me to the right department and for me to stay on the line.  *Groan*  Knowing where this was going, but not having much choice, I stayed on the line.  For all of about 30 seconds, at which point the background hiss turns to silence, which means I’ve been dropped.  Again.

XM phone transfer FAIL!

Call number 9.  Get another friendly person who asks all the same questions as the first and then transfers me to the other department.  Another drop. 

XM phone transfer FAIL!

Did I mention that like the Monty Python Monks, I’m a glutton for punishment?  I decide to give it another try (Thank you, sir.  May I have another?). 

Call number 10.  Got another friendly person with a faint Indian accent who asked the same questions again.  This time I ask if perhaps there’s some way for her to stay on the line as I’ve been dropped numerous times.  She agrees, but I still hear the familiar click as she puts me on hold.  long face

After about 30 seconds, just as I was fearing that I was going to be dropped again, I heard a very low voice.  It was so low that I thought at first that it might be cross-talk from another line, but after it paused and said something again, I tried talking to it (afraid I might be talking to myself) and it responded!  I cranked up the volume on my headset to STUN and although every single little background sound in my office was now reverberating through my skull I was actually able to converse with this person.  Amazingly I’d finally made it through to the almost mythical XM cancellation department!

She asked me all of the same questions as the other people (doesn’t anyone share info in these damn callcenters?  I know it’s possible, since I’ve worked on systems in the past that did it) and canceled the second radio.  Or at least she said so.  I’m not at all confident that it actually worked and I fully expect to have to call them again in a few weeks when the quarterly billing goes through. 

Why does this have to be so damn hard?  Why do companies insist on treating their customers so shabbily?  Something as simple as updating credit card info and canceling a single radio on an account shouldn’t take two hours and a multitude of web site visits and phone calls.  Someone at XM has seriously dropped the ball when it comes to prioritizing their customer service operation. 

XM customer experience FAIL!

Update: As a final stick in the eye, I received the following email after updating my credit card expiration date in the system:

Thank you for your recent payment to XM Satellite Radio.  Please allow two (2)
days for your payment to be posted to your XM account. 

This confirms that you have authorized recurring payments for your XM
Satellite Radio service.  The payments will be automatically debited from the
account or debit card you provided to us.  The timing of payments will be
based on the payment plan associated with each individual radio on your
account.  Please contact us at 1-800-XM-RADIO if you have any questions
regarding your account.

Thank you for using XM Satellite Radio. 

This, once again, doesn’t fill me with confidence in their system, as I didn’t make a payment.  I simply updated some billing information. 

XM appropriate update message FAIL!