Dec 12, 2013

Despair: The Mother of Creativity

Looks like it's been a solid year since I last posted anything new. Truth is, much like writing music or playing my guitar, I just don't feel much like blogging anymore. I think it all started (read: stopped) around the time I began getting treatment for my trifecta of above-the-eyebrow issues. It seems there is a connection between ones despair and their desire to publicly emote (artistically or otherwise). I suppose that sadness is the Mother of creativity after all. But, though I miss missing the writing and singing, I don't miss missing the constant drumbeat of self-destructive introspection that was my constant companion for all those years. It's a give-and-take I guess.

Kind of like the getting older. I have far more freedom as an adult than I did when I was, say, a toddler. I can stay up as late as I want and no one looks askance if I have a drink of water right before bedtime. But along with this freedom I have found that I've also lost some things. For example, while a toddler can take all their clothes off and run down the produce aisle of a grocery store until their mom catches them and it's seen as little more than an adorable mishap, when if I do the same thing as an adult it is considered far less precious. Apparently it's a "crime" in this country for a grown man to frolic nude in a public market without a permit. Who knew? In any case, just like that type of behavior can cost one their freedom by way of incarceration,  a couple of years spent getting my head right seems to have cost me the creative motivations that once oozed out of me like frosting. Sad, depressing frosting.

I am toying with the idea of starting a new blog that will focus less on my personal day-to-day life and more on (moron?) things that related to my professional life. Probably mostly fun things one can do writing code and the occasional technical review. I haven't thought of a cool name yet. I already bought a domain (using one of the new TLDs, no less) called "" so, assuming Microsoft doesn't sue me, I may end up using that. So who knows? Will this be my last post on Yes it will....or will it?

Dec 8, 2012

Presentation Paradox and the Tao of Introversion

Read a great Huffington Post article today. It was passed along by my brother who also enjoyed it. It was called “Nine Signs that You Might Be an Introvert.” Found that it did a great job at defining and articulating the nature of my seemingly paradoxical behavior. At my age, the ‘HF’ in my HFA has become dominant. I have mastered the art of feigning interest in other people and have built an extensive mental database of how to properly behave in countless social interactions. But the baseline things are still there. Among them, my preference to being alone whenever the option is available. So I present very well. But it confuses people; including, at times, me.

Here’s the thing. I love speaking in front of large groups -- the larger the better. I've taught technical classes and given countless talks on sundry philosophical and spiritual topics. I enjoy performing too. I've sung with live bands in front of hundreds of people and I even did stand-up comedy a couple of times when I was young. Loved every minute of it. Were you to ask any of my friends -- save a few that know me very well -- if I were ‘introverted’ or ‘extroverted’, they would most certainly group me in with the latter.

But I’m not. Not even close. I am supercalifragilisticexpi-introverted.

Granted, it can be very hard to tell that I am an introvert. However, it can quickly become apparent when people try to “connect” with me (or I with them). So I volunteer a lot and do other things that force me to be around people. But I always make sure it’s something that requires little to no emotional element. That’s probably why I love my vocation as a systems engineer. Just give me a problem and let me solve it. As the great American artist, Robert Van Winkle, once said:
Keep my composure when it's time to get loose. Magnetized by the mic while I kick my juice. If there was a problem, yo, I'll solve it. Check out the hook while D. Shay revolves it. Ice, Ice, baby.
"Juice kicking" notwithstanding, the bulk of Western society appears to have very little tolerance for, or even comprehension of, my type of introversion. That’s not really news -- people on the spectrum are often in such a situation. What’s more, due to their lack of understanding, most folks leave me alone and I really like it. But these same people will see me speaking in front of a crowd or postulating on some spiritual abstraction at a neighbor's front door and think I am “outgoing”. What they don’t see is the aftermath. Those two days of downtime I need to recover from the effort required for me to engage in those scant hours, or even minutes, of public interaction.

Kicking my juice attracts ferrous metals
The most enjoyable days I've ever had in my adult life usually involved me quietly sitting alone in a dimly lit room, writing code or researching some obscure topic, for hours -- then leaving the house to get sushi and/or ice cream -- then coming home and sitting quietly again until bedtime. Except for amusement parks. For some reason I can’t get enough of those. Not sure what the deal is there....

But anyway, don’t worry. I will still come to your wedding reception, graduation party, or open house. Just don’t try contacting me for a couple days afterward because I won’t answer the phone. Unless you want me to give a speech or something -- them I’m all over it.

Aug 21, 2012

The Verizon 4G 890L Jetpack - Reading the Config File

After hearing that Comcast was discontinuing their “HiSpeed2Go” wireless Internet service this month, I found myself in need of another mobile Internet connection. After looking around I went with the Verizon 4G 890L “Jetpack” (made by ZTE). It had decent reviews and Costco had great rebates that made the out-the-door price almost nothing. Once I got it home I was pleasantly surprised to find that it did indeed provide impressive speed -- especially given that I was only getting two bars of 4G service at the time. Not to mention that the device itself looked pretty slick. What can I say? I'm a sucker for high-gloss plastic.

The web-based configuration screen was nice looking and intuitive. I found that it provided the ability to allow the user (i.e. me) to download an offline copy of the device configuration. So, I went ahead and did that. But, when I opened the file (called "export_config" by default), I found that I could not read it. It seemed to be just a bunch of gibberish characters. Was the file it corrupted? Encrypted? Disrupted? Unscripted? What's my name? What color is the sky? What of donuts? What?! For the love of God, tell me!

After doing a bit of research online (we will call this "e-search"), I found I was not the first person to come across this. Turned out this 890L, while it looked and functioned like a modern wireless communication device, the under-the-hood security was still partying like it was 1999. In short, the 890L "Jetpack" was riddled with security flaws. So many in fact, the good people over at Lift Security io already published a security advisory about it.

They didn't get into specific weaknesses, but they did say that the unreadable config file is not encrypted at all. It appeared the ZTE engineers went with the time-tested “Security through Obscurity” methodology. The security advisory showed how the config file was a simple ascii code offset, with a key of 79. Then they provided a chunk of JavaScript one could use restore the file back to its original XML format. I'm not a javascript guy and I am way too lazy to learn, so...I wrote a PowerShell script to accomplish the same thing. BTW, if you don't your way around PowerShell, you should really learn. Unless you're too lazy. You're not lazy are you? Laaaazy?? Pfffft, I thought so. Lazy.

If you have one of these devices yourself, try downloading your config file and running it through the script (either mine or the js one from Lift Security). I think you will be amazed and/or horrified at just what's in the resulting XML file. I don't want to give away the ending, but let's just say that many special guests are scheduled to appear. Among them are "Password" and "PSK". :|

Anyway, here's my PowerShell script. Use at your own risk!  I always hate it when I find sample code online and it's full of shorthand that the uninitiated can't make heads or tails of, to wit, I tried to be as verbose as possible with my code.

## You can also REvert the XML back to gibberish (after making
## changes to the XML), but the web UI does a bitcount so it may
## not be uploadable. It's just a matter of doing the math in 
## reverse. Seriously, you should learn how to do this. :)

## Location and name of your original export file
$xFile = "C:\path\to\export_config"

## Getting content of the export file (and making a backup)
$time = Get-Date -Format yyMMddhhmmss
Copy-Item $xFile -Destination ($xFile + "_" + $time)
$s = Get-Content $xFile

## Coverting all characters to their ascii code equivalent
foreach($line in $s)
$z = $null
$y = $line.ToCharArray()
foreach($c in $y)
[string]$c = $c
$char = [char]$c
$charcode = [int]$char
## Converting to readable text by offsetting by 79
if($charcode -gt 79)
   $realCode = ($charcode - 79)
## For some reason 131 wigs the script out
## so we are ignoring that number
   if($realCode -ne 131)
      $realChar = [char](79 - $realCode)
      $c = $realChar
   $realCode = (79 - $charcode)
   $realChar = [char](79 + $realCode)
   $c = $realChar
$z += $c
## Saving your readable XML to the same location
## as your source file!
$z|Out-File ($xFile + '.xml') -Encoding ascii -Append

## The formatting isn't perfect, so open in a text editor
## to read (a browser will likely throw errors).

Jun 23, 2012

Wordle: It's Cloudy with a Chance of TiVo

I just recently discovered a neat little online thing called “Wordle”. What it does is create things called “word clouds” from any RSS feed (mass of text) you give it -- with the more frequent words being larger. For example, when I pointed it to the feed for this blog, it generated an interesting amalgamation of words.
It's Time to Know Just TiVo?

Since “TiVo” was the largest word, I have apparently used that word more often than any other. Who knew, right? I mean sure, I loves me some TiVo, but I didn’t think I used TiVo in so many posts. Did I mention I have owned no less than six TiVo’s over the years? Because I have. Owned. Six TiVo’s. I wonder what my TiVo’s are up to now? TiVo, TiVo, everywhere, and not a TiVo to TiVo. Anyway, that’s enough about TiVo.Back to Wordle....

Jun 16, 2012

Graduated Cylinder

Hey, remember blogging? I used to blog like a hundred blogs every day. Honest, I did. But then I stopped. But I am going to start again. I am restarting my blog postification So, why did I stop in the first place you ask? You did ask right? Because I could have sworn I heard you mutter something. Let's just say you asked. Well, since you asked, I will tell you. I have not had the time. Not much of a story I admit, but you did ask.

I have relit the sultry flame of my blogging passion for a good reason. My oldest daughter just completed the last of her 13 years of K-12, state-mandated, federally-funded education -- colloquially referred to as "graduating from high school". Since I know that there is at least one person out there that constantly checks my blog, day after day, for a new post (I'm looking at you Chris), I figured I'd bloginate about it. You are welcome. I made a video of the ceremony and everything.

Her Gramma had a grad party for her a couple weeks ago, and her Mum and I had our own party for her just last week. Altogether the little snot scored like $400, AND a bunch a cool gifts. What the flip?! Sure, everyone loves Michaela, but come on! Hey, you know why you love her? Because she exists. And why is that? Because HER PARENTS took care of her for something like 18 years! And what did we get? Jack crap, that's what! I mean, we bought her clothes, let her live in the house, and gave her food almost every day. What a rook. Did I mention how much money she got? Because it was a lot. She also got a desk and some cool Portal stuff. I wish I had a desk. Well, I do...but still....

"Here you go Dad. You deserve it....NOT!"
I just hate that she got all the stuff. I wish her Mum and I got something. Like maybe, I don't know, a time machine? Then we could go back to when she was a baby. You know what I hate even more? That she is growing up and that I am getting old. Not that I am some sentimental sissy or anything, no-sirree! I am stone inside. That's what they call me, "Old Stone, Guy". Yep! Ask anyone. Go ahead, I'll wait....

Oh, who am I kidding? I love her and am proud of her, I guess. Did you know she is only third person in my side of the family to graduate from high school? I know, it's pretty cool. She is a great daughter and, despite my best efforts, a better person than I am. Now if you'll excuse me, I am going to my room to not look at her old baby pictures and not get emotional. Hey look! My desk....they grow up so fast *sniff*. Desks that is. Not little girls. Because I am totally unmoved by the passing of time and thoughts of moments passed that....will never come again. Must. Resist. Don't think of any Justin Roberts song....ah crap. Curse you associative memory and how you are impacted by linear nature of time!

I also have a son who, God willing, will graduate in a few years as well. Then I get to go through all this again. How much you wanna bet he gets two desks. Pffftt! Stupid desks and their stupid....well, desks are just stupid that's all.

Jan 29, 2012

Snowpocalypse 2012

Michaela prefers to observe the snow rather that actually interact with it in any way.
We had our first bit of snow for the 2012 season. It was fun. The kids' schools were closed, so they played outside (sort of). They made (or at least attempted to make) a snowman and went sledding down our little hill. I believe there was even a snowball thrown at some point. You know, you're typical American snow event. Super awesome family funtime. But it got better. After the snow we had...more snow. Along with this additional snow came multiple power outages. Irritating, yes. But you know what? It was all worth it because after it all, it snowed...again -- and it kept snowing for another four swearing-goes-here days. We ended up with about a foot. Hardly anything compared a lot of places in the country, I know. But it was the worst snow storm in decades around here. It eventually came to be called Snowpocalypse 2012.

Jan 8, 2012

2012 TiVo Premiere: Prettier, Snappier, and 33% Appier

This sentence contains so many caveats, I don't think it exists at all.
As a long-time TiVo zealot and a regular follower of the @tivodesign Twitter feed, I was given a bit of a preview to the recent major update for the TiVo Premiere (20.2-01-2-746). Once the update was downloaded and installed, the final step was a full reboot. Now, TiVo’s don’t reboot very often reboot. My old Series 2 TiVo (circa 2006) would go months between reboots (and then only because there was a blip in the power). So, needing to force a reboot of my Premiere made me kind of nervous -- kind of like there was no going back, you know? However, I steeled myself to the danger and rebooted.

Jan 2, 2012

To Live and Slowly Spin in a Circle in LA

This time of year is always a bit weird for me. Due to the Christmas* and New Years** holidays occurring during the winter of the autumn and the spring of the winter (along with their corresponding 4-day weekends), I find myself with an abundance of unallocated hours to fill. To battle the onset of cabin fever, I usually start actively looking for projects around day 5. Something, anything, to occupy my copious free time. Things were especially cabin-feverish this year due to my timely acquisition of a nasty cold that kept me indoors even more than usual (the outside world is strange and frightening to me).

Dec 31, 2011

Go Small with Amazon Prime

You need a couple of SATA cables so you go to Amazon and find a  2-pack for less than $3.00.
Yep. It's a thing.

Shipping to your home would cost more than $3.00, and you would have to wait up to a week to get them (also, you are too lazy and/or cheap to drive to the local Best Buy and buy them there for $6.00).

Add more stuff to your order. Let's see...what to get? Say..what's this? A 12-pack of Worthington FriChick? The premiere product in the canned vegetable-protein-and-egg-whites-based chicken-flavored food product industry? Selling for less than $60.00? SOLD! Totally worth it? Probably not. All you know is you now have enough in your cart to qualify for free standard chicken, er, shipping. Yeah, it will take five days to get here, but man, that compressed vegetable-egg product is gonna be sweet (and by 'sweet', you mean 'wet and salty').

Join Amazon Prime and get your $3.00 cables delivered in two days for no charge. Duh.

Dec 17, 2011

Review: The Body Back Buddy. It's not for anything gross.

The Body Back Buddy.
Brought to you by the Letter 'S'
(but not the letters 'E' or 'X')
My friends all laugh when I show them this thing (or at least they would if they ever come over). I ask them to guess what it is and I get things like "It it a yard ornament?", or "Um......a sex toy?". Then I would say "What!? That's gross!". Then they laugh and say, " seriously, is it a sex toy?". That's usually when I ask them to leave. Perverts.

But for the few friends that aren't sickos, I will tell them what it actually does. They are dubious at first; at least until I let them use it. Then I see their eyes roll back in their heads and I hear groans of relief (again, I want to emphasize, this is not a sex toy). In short, they find that it really does work!

I think the hardest part is learning how to hold the thing. You look at it and think "What the flip are all these knobs for?" and "Did you buy this at the 'Lovers' store down the street? Because I am not using it if you did.", and then, "I don't think I can use this with a clean conscience.". However, it comes with this little book to show you how to use it (in a way that won't get you arrested). It's like having an LMT at my disposal. Both my wife and I are were going to a massage therapist as often as twice a month, at something like $70 a pop (though our co-pay was only $15). Not anymore (probably)! I can hook this thing over my shoulder and put pressure that spot on my back that is always tight. You know, "that" spot? The one place on your whole body you can't reach with your hands? Yeah, that spot.

My only complaint is there are a few places where the plastic molding seam creates a sharp edge. It can make those areas unusable because, you know, it hurts. I can sand them down, but that should have been done before shipping. But other than that irritation, the Body Back Buddy is the bomb (that's still a thing right?).

Nov 3, 2011

Asperger's Syndrome Causes Outbreak of Red-Squigglies

I was recently using Google Docs to continue work on my Masters thesis. That is to say, a document that will, one day, become my Masters thesis...probably. Right now it’s not really a thesis per se; really more of a collegiate-level essay. Truth be told, in its current form it’s little more than formal letter responding to the Cease and Desist letter I received last week from Justin Bieber's attorney.
Apparently, some of the “comments” I posted in one of his fan forums were seen as “inappropriate”. I still don’t know what the big deal was. All I said was that I was planning on coming by his place at night, snipping off a lock of his hair while he slept, and then taking said hair home so I could hot glue it to my Justin Bieber Japanese love pillow. And you know what else? Justin didn’t even have the decency to write me himself. He claims (though his attorney) that I am a “stalker” and that he doesn’t “know me”. Really, Justin? Then why do I have the pillow, Justin...why do I have the pillow? I’d say I know you pretty well. But fine; I’m “sorry” I you thought my comments were disturbing and “clearly illegal”. Like you don’t have a love pillow of me in your windowless basement. You’ve changed used to be about the pillows. But I am getting off topic. Let’s just move on....

Sep 20, 2011

Thinkgeek: What's this all aboot?

Thinkgeek invented this.
Invented it. With their minds.
My favorite website on the whole entire Cyberwebz is Thinkgeek is my favorite site on the Interwebz. Srsly. I have been a regular customer of theirs for well over a decade. Bestest stuff evah. You know those shirts I always wear? The ones you never "get" -- despite their obvious jocularity? I bought them all at Thinkgeek.

And here's even more bits to add to their pile of weirdness (or awesomeness, depending on your worldview). The first was an email I received from them just this morning. It was encouraging me to take a "short survey". I dutifully answered all the questions in their "Super Awesome Survey" and found them to be, of course, smarmy and (sortof) clever. I've taken their surveys before, so it was nothing new. But this time I noticed the survey was hosted by Google Docs. Maybe they've been the whole time, but I have noticed until now...not sure. Either way I thought it was interesting, given how much of Thinkgeek's merchandise is Apple-centric. I guess those aren't really universally exclusive; I just thought is was odd.
Due to their diet, the citizens of Ontario
are actually orange. True story. 
The other, much more interesting, thing (at least to me) was the current contest they are running. They promise to award a $100 Thinkgeek gift certificate to three randomly selected people who use some of their "Geek Points" to make a purchase ("Geek Points" are what Thinkgeek calls their customer rewards program). Again, that's nothing extraordinary. However, I took a stroll through the contest fine print and found this fascinating clause:
"Should the Winner be a citizen of Canada, the Winner’s Agreement and Release will include a mathematical skill-testing question.  Before being declared a Canadian Winner, the answer to the skill-testing question must be verified.  U.S. and other participants are not required to answer the skill-testing question."
What the what!? I thought this was a joke at first. Or at least a poor attempt at one. But a quick Google search revealed that it was, in fact, an actual legal requirement. So, along with all their hilarious 'aboots' and alarmingly high levels of Kraft Macaroni & Cheese consumption (for real...look it up), the Canadian law code states that all contests need to contain some element of skill. It seems that any truly random prize drawing is considered a form of gambling. Because, you know, I always see those compulsive gamblers repeatedly calling KCAN trying to win free ($8) BTO tickets from "The Jake and Bulldog Morning Slamajama". All this and they have the Queen of England on their colorful (aka 'openly gay') money? Honestly, sometimes Canada seems just a few serviettes short of a davenport. It's no wonder that even their own national anthem sounds disappointed in them. Oh, Canada....
Lastly, I am contractually obligated to use the term 'Eh?' in all my Canada-themed posts. So I just did.

Sep 12, 2011

Developmentally Delayed

I have been sinking my teeth into more dev work and less admin work of late. I really can’t believe I never ventured into development before. I had put my toe in the water a few times, but now I am getting really close the considering myself a “developer”. I am actually kind of embarrassed that it took me this long to get into it. Kind of like that time I put off hanging up a bird house for two months, only to find that what I thought would be a “project” ended up taking less than five minutes.

But with regard to my stunted professional growth, I think it’s because I’ve been working in the systems administration world for so long (coming up on 20 years). As a result I have become, well, as great man once said, “exceedingly proficient at it”. It’s easy and it’s comfortable. That, plus the fact that I am not really a “trying new things” kind of person, seems to have been keeping me from really reaching out for something more challenging. Sadly, that’s kind of a recurring theme for me...but I digress. But that’s not me now. Whenever I see an opportunity now, I charge it like a bull. Mike the Bull, that's me now. I have friends who live and die by the actuarial tables and I say ‘hey, it's all one big crap shoot anyhoo’. Am I right, or am I right, or am I right? Say, have you ever heard of single premium life? Because I think that really might be the ticket for you....

Sorry. They’ve been playing Groundhog Day a lot on Starz and I think I’ve sat through it too many times. Now, where was I? Oh yeah...

It's greater than underscore...apparently.
The language I am using now is one based upon the Windows .NET framework, namely PowerShell. It’s object-based and easier for newbies like me to get into. Plus, since it’s native to Windows, any tools created with it can be used in many different places. The last application I completed was a small utility that can be used to query against Active Directory (AD). This wasn’t as straightforward as I thought it would be. Initially all management wanted me to do was create a tool to list all the AD users within a particular Organizational Unit (OU) that did not have a roaming profile. No problem, I thought. Heck, I could that with a simple batch file. But then the so-called ‘feature creep’ began. They also wanted a way to limit results. Oh, and can you make it so we can see users’ home directories too? Sure, I guess so... But the on feature that finally pushed this from ‘simple batch file’ to ‘PowerShell application’ was when they asked for the whole thing to have an graphic user interface (GUI). That meant they wanted something that a non-technical user could use with little to no training (i.e. a .NET application). A workmate, who has been coding for years (in various languages -- including PowerShell), had been pushing me to start working with PowerShell for quite some time. He promised to mentor me if I would venture into this, heretofore unexplored, territory. He introduced me to helpful coding tools like PowerGUI Script Editor and various custom cmdlets (pronouced “command-lettes”) freely available from Quest. This seemed like a good opportunity to take him up on his offer, so I opened up a script editor and went to work. That was back in March.

Just last month (August) I finally finished my first application! I took my time (obviously), but now it works perfectly. It can do all the stuff management asked for and I was even able to engineer some decent error handling. It’s very simple but I really like seeing my coworkers using a tool that I made to fit their specific purpose.

Now I am well into making my next application. It will be a made to ‘hook into’ our Adobe Connect server. The Connect environment has an API designed specifically so developers (like me...squeee!) can leverage information better than the built-in Connect GUI offers. So far I have it working pretty well, but only from the command line. There is no GUI or error handling yet. While it is still taking longer than it would for a seasoned developer, I am finding I am making progress much faster this time. When I get the app done, maybe I will post the code here so my Mom all my readers can see it.

Aug 18, 2011

Four Months Later, Comcast Does the Right Thing

You may have read my post a few months ago about Comcast and their adorable billing error. In short, my monthly bill was about $170. One month I decided to add their Wireless WAN (Internet2Go), some more HD channels, and get premium channels. Came to about $110 worth of additional services, or $280 a month. But when I got my next bill it was for $410. Needless to say, I was more than a little irritated (if you want to read all the gory details, go nuts).

Well, I am pleased to say Comcast finally did the honorable thing, and it only took four months! Instead of writing another novel about each hurdle, let me just summerize. Maybe this can help someone else in the future. Here’s what I had to do:

  1. Submit (more than one) message via the Comcast customer service website
  2. Getting no response after several days
  3. Posting my complaints on Twitter (Seriously Comcast? Seriously??)
  4. Getting a response within six hours from @ComcastCares telling me they were going to “look into it” and asking me to email some Comcast bigwig my account number (which I did..several times)
  5. (See Step 2)
  6. (See Step 3)
  7. (See Step 4)
  8. (See Step 2)
  9. Filing a complaint with the Better Business Bureau
  10. Getting a phone call the next day from a really nice, albeit mostly powerless, woman working as a Comcast “Executive Customer Care” representative.
  11. (See Step 2)
  12. Getting an email from the aforementioned CSR promising to help fix this problem
  13. (See Step 2)
  14. (See Step 12)
  15. Getting a direct email from William "Bill" Gerth, some Comcast blogger dude presumably hired to “connect with today’s hip young people” (and the man behind @ComcastCares) who promised to “have it looked into by our billing specialist”
  16. (See Step 2)
  17. Filing separate complaints with both Washington state Attorney General’s Office (AGO) and the Pennsylvania AGO (Comcast corporate headquarters is in Philadelphia)
  18. Spending over four months in email correspondence with the same CSR and getting essentially nowhere (though I must mention again, she was pretty cool)
  19. Getting the issue resolved

What's that you say? Only nineteen easy steps? Yessirree! It's just that simple.

We are Comcast. We love you.
Seriously though, the fact that Comcast provides pretty poor customer service is no secret. There are entire web sites dedicate to little else. I won’t link to them here, but just do Google search for ‘comcastsucks’ (no space) ...good times. But I had been a Comcast customer (off and on) for many years and never really had a problem (well, maybe one other time). But you know how when a baby doesn’t poo for three days? You just know you are gonna get the ‘mother load’ eventually, right? Well Comcast must have saving it up for a while because I hit the jackpoo. This was a massive billing error and I’d be darned if I was going to just roll over pay it. Their initial offer of appeasement was the $100 “courtesy credit” I mentioned in my earlier post. I told them I appreciated to the offer, but I would not be paying my bill until the massive over-billing issue was explained and corrected. I told the CSR:
“ a court of law, paying a merchant is considered to be tacit acknowledgement that the billed amount is correct. Hence, I will withholding payment of the bill pending resolution.”
I had no idea of that was true, but it sounded good and I needed some rationale for not paying the $400+ bill. In any case, I slowly made progress. I think I did a few things that really helped reach a peaceful resolution and while still coming out on top.
Don't Be a Total Jag
If you look like this,
you're doing it wrong.
I made a deliberate point to never become belligerent or combative. That’s the mistake a lot of people make in these types of situations. They blow up and immediately lose the moral high ground. Most professionals will make an extra effort for someone who also behaves professionally. But once you go off the rails with expletives, veiled threats, etc., they're done with you. And speaking of veiled threats, another pitfall I avoided was never playing the “I’m gonna sue!!” card. While I leveraged some legal procedure by involving two AGO’s, I never threatened legal action. I have seen people do that in the past, and it's usually just a fact track to not-getting-what-you-want-ville. Once a lawsuit is threatened, a multi-billion dollar company will likely drop the matter entirely and wait for the lawsuit paperwork to arrive. Now if you happen to have to resources to hire a lawyer and spend a long time trudging through the legal system, sure -- sue the pants of ‘em. But if you are that well-to-do you probably won’t want to spend that much time contesting a couple of hundred bucks. Or maybe you will...I don’t know. The point is, I don’t have that kind of money and had to play it cool.

Avoid Actual Human Interaction

If you look like this,
you're doing it wrong.
Another thing that saved my bacon was using ‘chat support’ when requested most of the new services (I had added the Wireless WAN at the local Comcast office in person). This was purely accidental -- I just didn’t feel like talking with any off-shore, ESL support people that decade. However, having used chat in lieu of a phone call left me with something that turned out to be critical to this situation: chat transcripts. As you may have read in my earlier post, the people I chatted with gave me no less than three different quotes. I had no idea which one was correct, but when I contested my bill, there was no “I am pretty sure I was told...” or “I don’t remember the name of the person I talked to, but...”. This was all spelled out in the transcripts. When I submitted my various official complaints I made sure to attach the transcripts to support my claim. I think those transcripts were the single biggest factor in getting Comcast to give me more than just a ‘gee whiz we’re really sorry’.

But all that said, I was happy with the eventual outcome. Over the four months I received various credits totaling totaling nearly $500 and I was offered discounted service for two years -- if I signed a contract (it will save me $1200 over the contract term, so I figured it was worth it and signed). In all that’s $1700 that I won’t have to pay Comcast. The really sad part is, if they had just taken 10 minutes and corrected the bill, it could have saved them over a thousand dollars and kept me as a happy customer for some time. But, as things went, I seriously doubt I will be using Comcast come 2013.

Aug 11, 2011

Arabic District Convention - 2011

The 2011 Convention theme
We just returned from attending an Arabic-language District Convention in Southern California. What an encouraging experience in was! Though conventions such as these are offered worldwide, in dozens upon dozens of languages, the US has currently only a single convention in Arabic. We considered it a real privilege to attend this one. The convention site was (and presumably still is) over 1200 miles away and the costs are pretty significant -- at least for us. Though it was cheaper to drive than fly, it wasn't cheap. But even so, it was quite something is see all the other folks who also took a road trip to get there. Many of them drive much farther than we did. I took a stroll through the parking lot and found there were cars with plates from Florida, Georgia, and even New York. I think our sacrifice to make it was pretty inconsequential when compared to theirs.

But back to the convention. It was great spending three days fully immersed in the language! Well, almost fully immersed. The highlight of the convention was each day’s final talk. Each one was delivered by Guy Pierce. His talks were given in English while being translated, one sentence at a time, by one of the native Arabic speaking attendees. I had never seen a talk delivered that way before and it was quite impressive.

Great to find that most of our friends could make it this year!
I remember the first time we attended this convention. It was way back in the summer of 2008; only a few months after we began learning the language. It was a different time ten -- a simpler time. A gallon of gas was only four dollars. The US was engaged in a mere two simultaneous wars. And it was still “not cool” to find the death of Michael Jackson hilarious (that changed about three weeks later). We packed up two weeks’ worth of underwear and drove south (we made sure to pack more clothes this year). At the 2008 convention we didn't understand much. Hardly more than a few sentence fragments. We didn’t get anything measurable in the way of spiritual instruction. One thing we did come away with however, was a real desire to come back the following year. Sadly, it was not to be. We just didn’t have the resources to make the trip in 2010. Even though were were able to make to the (much smaller) Arabic Circuit Assembly in 2010, it didn’t really compare to the convention.

Of course you're smiling. You don't have to drive for six days.
So we made sure to make it this year. Totally worth it! Having a couple more years of Arabic under our jellabiya, we were able understand a lot more of the program.. Certainly not enough to fully keep up, but a lot more than we did in 2008. Not to mention the psychological factor. Last time we went I had yet to begin my personal journey toward mental health. But this time my trifecta of mental “issues” had been under treatment for over a year. It let me actually enjoy the sessions. Turns out, things like this are a lot more fun when one isn’t spending all their waking hours vacillating between being Captain Angrypants and  Mister Autistical. But that’s a tale for another day...

Just your typical roadside herd of elk
We got to see a few of the sites along the way too. We had made the drive to SoCal quite a few times over the years. In the past we had taken either I-5 or Highway 101. This time we tried something new and decided to take Highway 1 (also known as the Pacific Coast Highway). I had heard/read it was a beautiful drive, but that it was not to be taken lightly. Holy cow, whoever said/wrote that wasn't exaggerating! I didn’t know it was possible to make a 190-degree turn. I can only imagine how treacherous it would to drive at night or in inclement weather. There were some turns that had to be taken at less then 15mph, lest one launch themselves into the icy embrace of the Pacific ocean. Despite that, I loved the drive. Every mile had something amazing to see: the massive redwood trees, the wildlife, and of course the ocean. Of all the places we stopped, the two I would recommend the most are the Sea Lion Caves near Florence, Oregon and The Mystery Spot in Santa Cruz, California.

The Sea Lion Caves

And this is what you get to see before you see the giant cave of sea lions.
I figured this would be a bunch of man-made “caves” with sea lion in cages. Yeah, not so much. When say “Sea Lion Caves” , they aren’t kidding. From the road it looks like a smallish gift-shop, but it’s what you can’t see from the road that’s really awesome. Once we paid the admission we exited out the back and walked down a path to the elevator. Elevator?? We were already a stones throw from the beach. The elevator took us down another 200 feet. As soon as the elevator doors opened,  it was obvious what all the fuss was about. The Sea Lion Caves are actually gigantic, naturally occurring caves teeming with sea lions! It was absolutely amazing. I have never seen anything like it. I we had had the time, we would have stayed for hours.

 The Mystery Spot

Old people are funny
Do you think things like gravity and geometry are just fanciful stories made up to scare children? Have you ever tried to ski up a mountain? If so, I weep for you, your family, and the burden they carry to look after you. However, if you have ever thought “I would gladly pay $5.00 to park my car and then pay another $6.00 to see that.”, then have I got the place for you! It’s The Mystery Spot in Santa Cruz, California. It’s like an optical illusion come to life.

They offer guided tours of the eponymous ‘spot’ that is located on a steep hill. The story is mysterious forces are at work there. The entire tour consisted of walking up a steep hill to two small cabins where the “laws of physics don’t apply”. It’s true too. While I was there I totally hooked up with Thermodynamics, right in from of everyone. And then, I totally knifed some uppity dude named Inertia right in the throat and just walked away. I kid you not.

Heading Home

We came back about 87% hipper
On the way home we skipped Highway 1 and just took boring old I-5. Nothing is quite as exhilarating as driving in a perfectly straight line for hours. The only thing we saw that even came close to ‘beautiful’ was the occasional dust devil. Fun Fact: The term ‘dust devil’ comes from an ancient Navajo word ‘Doost Deevl’ which, when translated literally, means “Steamin’ Mad at Dirt”(r). I am one-hundred percent, completely serious.

Anyway, we made it home a few days later safe and sound. Despite leaving our house complely unoccupied for almost two weeks, everything was fine when we got home. Say what you want about my neighbors (and I have, a lot), they do know how to mind their own beeswax. Probably has some connection to the police cars I see parked near there a few times a month. In any regard, it’s nice to be sleeping in our own beds again. Here’s hoping we get to go next year too!