A Comcast Summary

For those of you that have been following my Comcast saga, you can jump down to the last paragraph. Newcomers, you are being treated with a brief summary of the previous trials. More in-depth information can be found in the posts tagged Comcast…just hit up the search feature.

The whole thing started about nine or ten months ago with some poor picture problems. I have a 50″ Samsung plasma television and subscribe to Comcast’s HD service complete with DVR. I figured it would be a fairly simple thing to call them up, run through their troubleshooting script, and get a tech to stop by and fix whatever was messed up. I figured wrong.

Over the course all these months I have been calling Comcast almost weekly with the same problem. Standard definition channels are so fuzzy that they look like I’m watching them on my old Zenith television hooked up to rabbit-ears and HD channels giving me the Max Headroom treatment if they come in at all. I have had no less than a dozen techs at my house over this time all trying to figure out what was going on. They ran a new cable to the house and replaced all the cable ends and splitters where the feed comes in. Nothing helped. I replaced the receiver which was constantly locking up on me (thus losing all my saved programs) and that did nothing except maybe make my problems even worse.

So I blogged it. Lo and behold my little blog which got less than twenty hits a day at the time got a response. In less than four hours after posting my first Comcast rant, I got a comment from Melissa with Comcast’s Social Media Outreach group. Thus ensued a series of emails (which are blogged here) and phone calls with the “local leadership” in an effort to fix my ongoing poor service. More techs were sent and more problems just weren’t fixed. But Customer Service was a pleasure to deal with. Every last one of them was helpful and sympathetic. Their techs consistantly sucked. Insert more blog postings, emails, and phone calls.

Eventually I got a response via Twitter from Melissa’s boss, Frank (@comcastcares). He was very excited about my opinion on how his group was helping me get something done but was just as frustrated at their tech’s inability to fix it. More time passed with steadily worsening service. It literally became unwatchable cable. Finally, Melissa ran across my more recent postings (the one’s with Star Wars-esque names) and decided it was time to up the ante. That got me the head of the local support center and a visit from one of his top engineers. Yep, engineer…not tech. He fixed the problem in less than two hours. Turns out when the cable ends were replaced, the one that went to my DVR had some of the ground braiding touching the center conducter wire. Way to go tech guys.

Well, that was about three weeks ago and I am happy to say that I have been credited for service that was nigh unusable and since the engineer’s visit, my service has been really good. I still get occasional pixelation, but I can live with it. Besides, who on Comcast doesn’t have quality drop on HD every now and then? It took every ounce of patience I had to keep them around long enough to get a fix. This was in large part because of my reluctance to give up Food Network and Good Eats. Alton Brown is the only reason I have cable to begin with and my addiction to his show is the only reason Comcast is still getting money from me. So I have to thank AB for giving me a reason to see it through to a finally happy conclusion. I cannot express how much I appreciate everything that Frank and Melissa did for me. That group deserves positive press regardless of whatever the rest of the Company From Hell is doing. So Frank and Melissa, thanks again and keep up the great work. With luck you won’t hear from me any more unless you want to talk about random topics.

Disqus Comment System

I saw an interesting tweet from Scott Beale over at Laughing Squid today about his new comment system. He moved to Disqus and he wanted some people to test it out. So I stopped over and left a few comments and decided to sign up for a Disqus account while doing so. This is a neat little system that lets you track your comments across all sites using this system for their comments. Your profile at Disqus is used for all of them and your clout (think karma) travels from site to site with you. This could both good and bad.

I do like the centralized storage and configuration for not only my comments, but all comments on my site as well. Everything is in one place and easy to deal with. The installation on a WordPress site is really straightforward. Just download and activate the plugin and you’re done. That’s the silver lining to this cloud. The cloud itself is that there is no way right now to import any existing WordPress stored comments into Disqus. You don’t lose them. They are still in the database. But since the plugin replaces the comments section on your site, they don’t show up any longer. Oh and did I mention Disqus supports Seesmic video comments?

I understand from my reading that they are working on an import mechanism and I am eagerly waiting for the release. There have been hints that it would be released this month so they better hurry…there’s only a few days left. I’m not overly worried about it for SBR because there weren’t all that many comments to begin with. Of course, part of my laid back attitude towards this has to do with their response for enhancements and fixes. All indications are they respond really really quickly. I’ve seen nothing but praise for their efforts to make their users happy.

Hey Comcast…perhaps you should have your techs study under these guys for a while. And while you’re at it, I think both Disqus and Comcast should head over to the Demo Girl site and read this. Why? There are links that are only available if you scroll to the very bottom of the page…things like HELP. Bad web designers. No cookie for you.

Evernote Goes Live

I was first introduced to the Evernote service by Leo Laporte. He mentioned it in a TWiT podcast and the concept intrigued me. Here is a service that will let you upload text, images, web pages, whatever into online notebooks that can be synchronized with desktop client software or accessed via web browser. The really neat feature of this service is the OCR. All notes are run through OCR so you can even search your images by typing any text that appears in the picture itself. Well, after a huge invite-only beta (much like GMail), they have gone live.

Free service with Evernote is still available. It will only allow for 40MB of uploads in a month and will not have priority access to OCR services. Storage allowed is still unlimited. There is also a premium membership which gives you the choice of paying $5 a month or $45 a year (a $15 savings). This service gives you 500MB of data uploads a month and first access to OCR services and other goodies like SSL for all data transmissions.

The service has been running along smoothly for the time I’ve had my account. I use the desktop client on both my Vista and Mac systems. Personally I love the clip tool of the desktop client that lets me select a box on my screen to copy into Evernote. This is wonderful for web clips. Then it’s just add a couple of tags and sync. I actually wouldn’t be surprised if the next thing Google tries to gobble is Evernote. This is exactly the kind of information organization they stand for.

Hats off to you guys for a great product and here’s looking to a bright future.

George Carlin – RIP (NSFFW)

No, I did that right. It’s NSFFW. I think you can guess what the other F is for considering this post is about the comedic icon George Carlin. He died yesterday at age 71 of heart failure, which sucks. Am I mourning him? Hell no. I loved that man in a purely heterosexual way. He was one of my heroes. But I’m not going to insult the guy that made seven words famous by crying at his grave.

Nope, today I’m gonna give my respects to the sun and drop a prayer to Joe Pesci that all the pansies who mourn him with tears get a bat to the shins for being pansies. I’m gonna look at the establishment, give it the big finger, and tell it to fuck off in honor of Carlin. I’m gonna be politically incorrect by using terms like shell shock and toilet paper and used cars. I’m gonna use the seven words he made famous: Shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker and tits.

I do not feel closer to you George. I don’t feel that we bonded or had a moment or shared anything. I sure as fuck didn’t interface with you. You didn’t relate to me and I don’t identify with you. You had some nice ideas. You made me laugh at how stupid people really are. That’s really as far as it went and I’m guessing that’s just how you fucking wanted it. Congratulations. You succeeded. But if you think I’m patting you on the back, you’ve got another fucking thing coming.

I’m going to salute the man I admired and who I think would have been one hell of a President of the United States by saying don’t be a fucking pansy. Stop the pussification of the American Male. Stand up and say what needs to be fucking said. Do what needs to be fucking done. Don’t worry about what others will think. Just take care of business. Otherwise I’ve got no fucking use for you. Do you understand?

George’s soul is probably stuck on Joe Pesci’s roof right now and I think that’s fucking awesome. He was the kind of guy that says what needs to be said. Many of my friends think I’m kind of a dick. But then, they also know I’m the one guy that will always tell them like it is with no bullshit. They respect that and they trust me because of it. So to all of you puffy butterfly girlie-men out there that think that the truth is too harsh…fuck you. Grow a backbone. We’re in the position we’re in right now because of that kind of spineless sentiment.

I think America would be a far safer place and a far more respected country if we had a Commander-In-Chief that would look at the rest of the world and say I know you have problems but I’m not your mother so fix it your fucking self. The problem is we elect pussies to office that are unable to think or speak it like it is to the powers that be in other nations. Hence our current dilemma. Carlin, you will be missed, but I’m not shedding a single fucking tear for you. I’m gonna raise some of the same hell you did and then I’m gonna raise some that’s all my own because you helped to teach me to think for myself.

That is your legacy. Some of us think for ourselves and aren’t afraid to tell the world to get the fuck off. We’ll stand tall and proud. We’ll give the almighty finger to anyone that deserves it with a big shit eating grin on our faces. We’ll ask the questions that others won’t and we’ll expect fucking answers. Rest in peace, George, and tell Joe Pesci to leave you the fuck alone if he tries to get you off the roof.

And for the record…

Shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker and tits.

Welcome to the 21st Century, Comcast

In the long struggle with my cable service there has always been one thing that has bugged me. Comcast is arguably one of the largest communication companies in the United States. So why are they about the only company in the United States that still doesn’t have an e-bill option? They give me internet and (sometimes) cable television and can even supply me with telephone service. But I can only get my bill via snail mail. Is it really so hard to send me an email?

I would imagine with all the money Comcast makes from the gouging prices standard in the cable industry they could afford a programmer or two to write a couple of scripts to generate a little email to all subscribers that opt-in saying that their bill is ready. I mean, damn, I can view my bill at the site and I can pay it there as well. All I want is a freakin’ email telling me it’s ready to be taken care of. I’m not asking for a full blown html bill with personal information that can be stolen…just a message that says “Your Comcast bill for is ready. Please visit Comcast.com to pay your bill.” I’ve got an eleven year old daughter that could probably write a script to do this.

That being said, I talked to a lady at Comcast today that said they were supposed to roll that very feature out yesterday but had a problem so it will most likely be a couple of weeks to a month before they try it again. So again I ask, what’s so hard about this? I’m making the assumption that billing information is kept in a database. So all you need is a script to run a query for a bill date and opt-in status that then generates the emails for those people and sends them out. You are planning on making a form on the site to opt in to such a thing, right? After all, I know I’m not alone in the people that have never used their Comcast.Net address.

I’m sure they want a fancy html laden beast of a message but I don’t think that people in general give a damn about how pretty it is or how much it looks like the site (which in my opinion is craptastic). Please hire some people to address this guys. I want email notifications of my bills so you can stop killing trees on my behalf. Besides, I use my inbox as a bill reminder system. Only unpaid bill emails stay there. Everything else is filed away. Anything that hits my physical mailbox is usually forgotten unless it comes from Netflix.

** If you’ve been following my service saga, I promise that I’m working on a new update post. I just need to give the latest developments a little time to simmer before I serve them up.

Home Media Makeover Part One: DVD Library

Technology abounds in every aspect of our lives. Computers are usually the center of a great many media types that we experience throughout the day. You can buy a computer pretty much anywhere these days for really reasonable prices. So the question on my mind has been, why are most people still using the old components of yore for their home theaters? Why not leverage some of this wonderful computer technology and versatility for the home theater experience?

Yes, I know there are HTPC options out there. Most of them run well over $1500 for the base model. I also know you can roll your own HTPC/DVR for about the same price. What I’m talking about is using a more distributed model, preferably leveraging systems you already have in place…just extending them to the HDTV in the living room. For my personal project, I have a 20″ iMac on my desk and a Vista laptop that usually sits on the coffee table. There’s a 50″ Samsung plasma TV in the living room that I really want to use to watch my media such as streaming video from the web with an XBox360 under it.

Ideally, I want to get rid of the DVD player and replace the set-top box from Comcast with my media system so I can drop the cable television service and thus save myself over $1000 a year. Now I realize that for my particular desires, I will not need a PVR/DVR setup and can thus skimp on some hardware. Actually, for step one of my media center makeover, I just want to stream ripped copies of my DVD library so my 360 will play the part of extender. For this setup, storage will be the biggest concern with network bandwidth running a close second. With today’s prices for hardware, neither of those should be a challenge to satisfy on a budget.

Let’s start by making sure there is plenty of storage for my media. My eventual completed media system will hopefully house rips of every DVD I own so I can just fire up my extender and select the title that it will stream to the plasma. For this I’m going to need something really large because I own a lot of DVDs. I will add an external 1TB USB hard drive to hold my movies. I will probably add a second one later on to house my anime. This is the nice thing about using external storage. I can add/remove/swap at will even while the system is running. These drives start at just over $150. So that’s reasonable.

Next I need to worry about network bandwidth. Everything in my house is running wirelessly on 802.11g. I was worried that video streaming would saturate the bandwidth, but after testing it last night with Pirates of the Carribean, I am confident that the G network will be sufficient for everything I will be doing in phase one. This is wonderful because I don’t have to spend the money on a new router and adapters for every system in the house. I now have more budget to work on other areas.

Now we have storage and bandwidth taken care of for less than $200. Time to hit software. I already have Handbrake which will handle the rip/convert process for my DVDs. I also have Connect360 ($20) to let the XBox see my iMac. Now I just need time. Handbrake 0.9.2 has a large selection of presets for different types of devices. Since I am using my Xbox360, I selected the presets for that device. It works wonderfully. Handbrake also has presets for everything from the iPhone to a PS3. It is a wonderful little program that costs nothing.

If you are using Vista Home Premium or Vista Ultimate, you have what you need to connect to the 360…Windows Media Center. That would just leave the ripping/converting software. Many people take the inexpensive route of ripping the DVD with DVD Decrypter or DVDShrink to a single VOB file then changing the extension to MPG. Media Center will let you stream the renamed file to your 360 with full DVD Quality. Details for this method and some caveats are here. There is also TMPGEnc MovieStyle ($39.95) which can encode to different playable formats.

Do not be fooled. Ripping and encoding a full length movie is not going to happen quickly. It took nearly four hours for my iMac to get finished with Pirates of the Carribean. This is not a project for the impatient. You will easily spend a couple of weeks working on rips if you have a large library. I have about 400 or so DVDs from movies to anime and television series. I fully expect this conversion process will take me about two months. On the bright side, unless I lose a drive, I won’t have to worry about it ever again and adding new movies that I purchase will be mostly painless.

Now that my DVD library is taken care of in this design, time to hit up my other wants. I want to be able to stream from video sites such as SurfTheChannel and Hulu since this is where I get a lot of my television series fulfillment. That will be in Part Two.

Firefox Download Day is Here!

Today is the day. Mozilla aims to set the world record for most software downloads in 24 hours with their release of Firefox 3 which is expected today. So I say to everyone, the moment the official FF3 release hits the servers, go get it.

Update: According to Lifehacker, the release is set for 10am Pacific. Remember, to count in the record tally, you must download it from the official site in its entirety, updates don’t count.

Comcast Episode Three: Revenge of the Box

Another week and still the high signal issues persist. I figured that since the tech that came out Saturday was one that had been there before and managed to get me fixed back then, I would see some satisfaction. I was wrong. While attempting to watch Good Eats last night I got frozen frames, pixelated video, trilling sound…the full Max Headroom treatment…that culminated in a nice box in the middle of the screen once again informing me that I needed to subscribe if I wanted to watch Food Network. Come on guys, it can’t be that hard to fix a signal problem.

So there I was, on the phone with Comcast yet again. The lady was really nice. I can’t commend their phone reps enough for their great personalities. She couldn’t find my ticket but informed me she was unable to see any that have been escalated. She tried to get someone on the phone from escalation but they wouldn’t answer. This is another area where I have to give kudos. She didn’t just transfer me to their queue and move on to the next caller. She placed me on hold and tried to get them on the phone before handing me off. That failed, though. We settled for an email to her manager and to the escalation team about the problem.

Today’s agenda will include calling Sid and negotiating a reduction in my last bill since I spent roughly 75% of my actual television watching time with either no service or unusable service. I shouldn’t pay for something I just cannot use. Besides, I doubt my tiny little bill will put them out of business if they credit it. As of my writing this, I still have not heard back from the escalation department even though I was assured they would contact me before now. So here’s the lesson boys and girls: Comcast has a great customer service department if you only account for the people that answer the phone when you first call in. Anything after that is a gamble that will most likely end in tears.

Now you may be wondering why I’m still fighting this after all my ranting. I have a daughter that loves Cartoon Network and Nick. If it weren’t for me leaving her TV desolate, I would have dropped Comcast like a bad habit long ago over this. That was then. Now she’s just going to have to get used to the idea of watching DVDs or reading books. I’ve been patient. I’ve been nice. I’ve really tried to work it out and Comcast’s customer service has appeared to sincerely attempt to fix my problems. Their tech support obviously has other plans.

The other part of my dilemma is that even with extensive use of Google, I am unable to find a well written blueprint for replacing a set-top box and cable television with a PC and broadband. This will be my next endeavor. There needs to be a simple and concise article written on the ways you can substitute internet television for cable. I’m thinking a modular blueprint so you can add or skip sections based on what you actually want to do with it. I want to get my normal shows on my HDTV, use the HTPC as my DVD player, home theater amp (5.1 surround), and set-top box. The ability to stream media from my iMac and/or Vista laptop will be a bonus.

No More iPhone Gripes!

By now most everyone on the planet has heard about Jobs’ keynote at WWDC. The new iPhone has GPS, 3G, and better battery life. It will be sold in 22 countries around the world starting with the initial release on July 11. AT&T is still the US exclusive carrier right now and they are offering it for $199 (8GB) and $299 (16GB). This is all awesome news. However, there is also a lot of griping on the intarwebs about the price hike of the AT&T data plan. It’ll be $10 more a month. I want to say something to the honking noises of the masses on this.

The total cost over the 2 year contract will be $40 more than it is now. That’s $200 off the price of the phone and $240 added back for the data plan price increase. Some people have felt the need to moan about how we are getting screwed by this new way of charging us and that the new deal isn’t actually a deal at all. I disagree. The phone has newer and more efficient hardware. The device is now fully 3G capable. It has a full GPS built into the unit. I’m pretty sure the market value of these changes equates to more than $40. So guess what, we’re still getting a deal on the phone…more of one in my opinion. If you don’t like it…go buy a RAZR. I paid $400 for my Tilt with a 2 year contract. The iPhone does almost all of the same things now in a much smaller package. Not to mention it is a far better media player than my Tilt.

I can’t understand what drives people to concoct these ludicrous conspiracy theories every time a corporation makes any kind of change. It’s just as bad as people whining about Windows security for a decade and then bitching because Vista takes on a security model not unlike that of Linux. Sure the Vista implementation is a little rough around the edges and always in your face when you try to install software or change system settings. Remember the market for Windows machines, though. These aren’t the people that are going to do a Stage 1 Gentoo install over an entire weekend. It has to be more intrusive because Microsoft has to deal with a lower common denominator of computer savvy.

This is the problem with the masses. You take things in the worst possible light at every possible opportunity. Relax a bit and just imagine what the iPhone might have cost if Jobs had decided to keep the same deal with AT&T. The iPhone could easily have been more expensive with the same plans. At least this way you aren’t forced to cough up the extra dough up front. You get to spread it out in micropayments made over the 2 year contract. So sit down, shut up, and be thankful there’s a plan in place to get more iPhones in more hands. The more we see on the market, the more applications we’ll see to make the iPhone an even better communication tool.

Comcast Episode Two: Attack of the Fuzz

There I was, minding my own business. It had been a long day at work but the week was now over. I had made it to Friday night. Supper was eaten and the dishes put away. All I had to do was relax on the couch with Doctor Who. The episode teaser was intriguing. The Doctor has a daughter?

The show started and I was instantly mesmerized by the images on the 50″ plasma. Say what you will, but I like the way Doctor Who stories are presented. I like the writing. I like the acting. It’s probably my favorite show next to Good Eats (and nobody can top that one). But there was a problem. Max Headroom syndrome was starting again. It was a little spastic, but it was there…probably nothing to worry about.

Then it grew more pronounced. By ten minutes into the show I was having full blown half-second scene repeats. But it’s fine, I just want to see the show so I switch to the SD channel since HD was obviously on the fritz. The signal is so bad it’s like watching TV on rabbit ears attached to a 10″ tube set made in the 50’s. It’s during a commercial so I switch to another station to make sure it isn’t just a SciFi problem. Nope. Every channel is covered in more fuzz than a lint catcher.

But it’s fine. I just want to see Doctor Who. I can make out the picture and I can hear the voices. It’s good enough. So I switch back to SciFi. Instead of the show I get a box that declares I must subscribe to SciFi if I want to watch it. Now I know my bill is paid and everything is in good standing. So I switch to a local station…same message. Something is horribly wrong. I reboot the box.

Joy! The signal is still bad but I can watch SciFi again. I’ve missed about 6 minutes of the show, but that’s alright. I just want to watch the rest of it. Unfortunately it blinks a minute or two in and brings me back to the subscribe message. By this time I’m on the phone with Comcast. The first call was pointless. I described the problem and the lady put me on hold. After waiting on hold for over 10 minutes I hang up and call back. Imagine that, I get someone on the phone right away. She isn’t overly helpful. She said there’s no problems in my area and I should just wait it out and see if it clears up. During all this I get it semi-working again and agree while trying to figure out what’s going on in Doctor Who.

But like a bad poker hand that you just keep getting dealt, it went right back to the subscribe screen. Now if you’ve been following my Comcast posts, you know this is a new DVR. You know that I’ve had new cabling run all over the place during the last year. And you know that Comcast techs should just about rent a house across the street because they are out here that much. So now I’ve missed almost all of Doctor Who. I make a third call. I get a guy this time on the phone. I actually feel sorry for him because I begin venting.

Now I’m not the kind of guy to just completely…ok…yes I am, but I am not so mad that I just burn his ears off. He does understand exactly how irritated I am, though. I get an appointment for Saturday so I won’t have to take a day off work. This guy is being very patient and offering some real help. It’s the first I’ve gotten tonight. So I thank him and hang up. Why? Because I’m busy buffering the episode I just missed on SurfTheChannel. Yep, I’ve found yet another site to replace the questionable service of Comcast Cable.

The tech that came out on Saturday has been to my house before. He remembers the work he’s done in the past and can’t believe they still don’t have it fixed. He tested far more stuff than any other tech and said he’d pass it on to thier senior guy who has been doing this for over 20 years. Actually, today is now Tuesday and I should have an answer as to what the problem is. (There’s a small chance it’s the cable in the walls.) And would you believe the guy told me that part of my problem the previous night was because of an outage? He laughed and shook his head when I told him the lady on the phone put me on hold to check with her supervisor to see if there was an outage and she assured me there was not one. Get it together Comcast.

Oh, after all this complaining, why am I still using their service? My daughter. She’s 11 and is thoroughly attached to Nick and Cartoon Network. While I can shift my viewing habits, I can’t yet bring myself to render her TV into a DVD player attachment just yet. It’s getting there really fast, though.