Wednesday, January 27, 2010

This is Stupid, and You Should Fix it

Three weeks after Christina in "Executive Customer Service" promised me a call back, she called and emailed me today. I couldn't take her call because a week of sinusitis has left me with bad laryngitis, and I can barely speak. The gist of her email is that the name on the account shouldn't have been changed, and I should dispute the charges with my credit card company. She offered to follow up with their collections department on such a dispute if I'd just go look up the dates and amounts. These are dates and amounts which I have already furnished to Comcast.

I'd had enough, so for your enjoyment, here is my response to her. At no point did I actually curse at her, even though I was thinking of a cursing tirade all the while I was composing my response.

The way I have been treated by Comcast disgusts me on a visceral level. I simply cannot begin to express with words just how angry and frustrated I've been with the way I've been abused. I did nothing to deserve this treatment, not that you actually care. If you did, you wouldn't behave with such flippancy, and you'd endeavor for Comcast to learn something from this experience.

Your customer service department simply does not comprehend that while each call might be taking up only 120 seconds of one representative's time, dealing with the problem might be taking up *hours* of the caller's time. They need to own problems and take responsibility for getting them fixed, not just do everything in their power to end the call. This is stupid, and you should fix it.

We changed the account from one name to the other on the advice of someone to whom I spoke at Comcast.

The reason for this is a broken Comcast process: It is impossible to set up a new account at an address until an old account has been completely deactivated. New service can't even be ordered, so there's a minimum one-week service disruption that must occur if the person in whose name the account is held moves out. This is stupid, and you should fix it.

We were told that to circumvent this limitation / broken process, we could change the name on the account by going to a Comcast office in person. This is what we did. We went there in good faith, executing on the process suggested to us by someone representing Comcast. The request was handled by another representative of Comcast.

We did everything we could to try to make the transition smooth and to try to ensure that the outcome was positive. We did the right thing, but Comcast couldn't be bothered to put forth even a minimal amount of effort to ensure that they did the right thing too.

The fact that it took you three weeks to get back to me after you promised me a call back on the same day tells me that Comcast's horrifically abysmal attitude toward its customers and miserably inept customer service in general is something that oozes and dribbles from the top down. This is how Comcast got the well-deserved reputation among its customers for having horrible service. This is stupid, and you should fix it.

I have already disputed the charges your company so incompetently applied to my credit card. They're the charges applied to my card in November and December. Go look them up yourself if you want to know what the amounts are. I'm sick to death of dealing with you cretins.

I don't really expect a response, because I'm fairly sure I'm right in my assessment. Comcast simply does not care that its customer service is the worst in America. Theirs is stupidity with malice.

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Thursday, December 24, 2009

Dear Comcast, Why Are You So Stupid?

Recent dealings with Comcast have convinced me that their reprehensible customer service is no accident. I know one should normally assume incompetence before malice, but now I'm convinced that behind their utter ineptitude lies deliberate hostility toward their customers. They hope that if they tread you badly enough, you'll give up and take up no more of their precious time.

Back in October, I was moving out of my condo into the house my partner and I had purchased. Since I was continuing to rent out the condo to my now-former roommates, and since hitherto I'd been supplying the Internet access, it was necessary to perform some set of steps to get the Comcast service out of my name and into one of theirs.

The first problem is that Comcast is too stupid to do this. They can't start new service at an address until the old service is ordered disconnected (a problem we actually ran into at the new house too, because the former owner hadn't put in a disconnect order by the day the deal closed). They can start new service after the old service is disconnected, but it takes a week to get a technician to visit, even if the equipment is going to be the same and no setup is required. This means no Internet for a week, and it's impossible to coordinate the stopping and starting of service, because the existing service actually has to be switched off before the new service can even be ordered. Dumb, huh?

It turns out there is a workaround. One can physically go to a Comcast office with the soon-to-be-former account holder and the new account holder and have them migrate the account locally. This is what my roommate and I opted to do, to ensure no service disruption.

The problem with this strategy, again, is that Comcast is too stupid to do this right. (In fact, Comcast was even too stupid to figure out which was my roommate's first name and which was his last name: in the course of this nightmare I discovered that they got them backwards on the account. They also randomly removed the extra IPs and greater bandwidth from the account after it was transferred, for no apparent reason. It's like someone received the service order and then just did random things for a while, rather than taking the time to understand what was requested and then to do it.) If there is an opportunity to fail, Comcast will boldly seize the opportunity.

I noticed on my credit card statement today that there was a charge from Comcast for service. This stood out as an anomaly, because the service here is in my partner's name, and we pay for it from our joint account. I made the questionable decision to chat up someone on the Comcast web site to ask for help.

The chat app is kind of a neat idea. It gives the impression that the chat operator can help with billing questions by putting "Billing" in the drop-down for the reason why you need to chat. In actuality, however, the chat operator can only help you with severe constipation, because the conversation you're to have will cause severe bleeding diarrhea.

Then I decided to call. I hate calling Comcast, because every time I call Comcast, something stupid happens. Today was to be no exception. I called and explained to the idiot that they were still charging me even though I had transferred the account to someone else. I wanted them to refund me the incorrect charge and correct the billing information. Seems like a reasonable request, right?

Reasonable, yet utterly impossible. When we tried to get the account transferred from me to him, Comcast managed to migrate the account owner information, but not the billing information. Moreover, they declared that they were completely powerless to do anything about this without the new account holder's name and social security number.

I even got their customer service idiots to acknowledge that they were in fact charging me for someone else's service, but they not only refused to do anything about it, they also didn't feel as though they bore any responsibility. Mind you, this was their screw-up in the first place.

I finally ended up getting the required information from my roommate and spoke to yet another idiot who suggested I cancel automatic payment and get him to pay me back for the service. It was roughly at this point that I completely lost it. Not acceptable, I explained, as this was not my problem to waste my time resolving. This was Comcast's screw-up, and it is for them to fix. The idiot claimed to have submitted a form to have the incorrect charges refunded and also claimed to have removed my name from the account. The latter claim turned out to be false (I checked), so I have my doubts as to whether the former claim was true.

In the end I had to make roughly 9 phone calls over the span of several hours. I had at least 3 customer service idiots either pick up and hang up or pick up and ask how they could help and then hang up. The remainder of the calls were my trying to figure out what was really happening and trying to convince one of their idiots that what they were doing was wrong.

My next step will be to dispute the credit card charges if they are not reversed by Monday.

The degree of stupidity is absolutely overwhelming. It's not that they're just incompetent. They're incompetent with malice. They are trying not to help and to make life as difficult as possible. I hope they get coal in their stockings.

UPDATE, week of 1/4: I contacted Comcast's head of Customer Service via their form and actually got someone to call me back the next day. Unfortunately I was driving so I couldn't completely resolve the situation then and there on the phone. The rep who called me suggested that I dispute the charges through my credit card company (I guess it would have been waaaay too much to expect Comcast to issue a refund for their own screw-up), and promised to call me back after 2 PM the same day. As you might imagine, I have received no return call.

I did dispute the charges with my credit card company. I hope it gives them even a tiny fraction of the frustration that they've given me.

The fact that even their "executive customer service" people won't return phone calls as promised tells me that their problem is systemic from the top down. Comcast does not care one iota about customer service, and never will. Why should they? They have a monopoly in municipalities where they provide service, so why should they care whether you're happy?

The moral of the story is that when a service monopoly screws up its billing, don't even bother trying to correct it with them. Instead, dispute the charges with your credit card company as a FIRST step. Don't waste your time on a company that won't waste its time on you.

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Thursday, July 16, 2009

Morbid Fascination

I recently came across the Cylinder Preservation and Digitization Project at UCSB, which is trying to preserve and make digital transfers of late 19th and early 20th century cylinder records. It's one thing to read about Taft or Roosevelt in history books, and quite another to actually hear their voices giving a speech.

Not everything from that era is so noble, however... I find the patently offensive racist recordings morbidly fascinating, in the same way I find my bizarre old book collection morbidly fascinating. Fascinating not because I agree with or even remotely sympathize with their content, but because it's amazing to me that people used to think or behave in such a way, as these attitudes and beliefs were commonplace. We've come a long way in just 100 years, especially if you compare the last 100 years with the prior 1000 years.

One of the more offensive recordings I came across was Collins and Harlan's Bake Dat Chicken Pie. This is a "minstrel" song, meaning that it was sung by white men who were trying to perform with stereotypical black accents and mannerisms.

Collins and Harlan were not exactly south-eastern racists either; Collins was born in Pennsylvania and Harlan in Kansas. This suggests to me that racist attitudes in the early 1900's were far from confined to the south; even if black people were not hated, they were at least thought of as inferior and comic fodder, enough that "Bake Dat Chicken Pie" was a big hit for the comic duo. People of the time didn't think twice about their usage of what we now call "the 'n' word." (Modern day R&B and rap notwithstanding, but I digress.)

Humor from the 1907 can be a bit boggling in 2009 as well. Consider this "joke" from near the end of the aforementioned recording:
Speaking of chicken, an awful funny thing happened to me the other day.
What was that, boy?
I went in the store and bought a dozen eggs, and on one of the eggs was written a lady's name and her address, and underneath it said, "please write."
Did you write?
No, after I opened the egg, I knew by this time that she must be a very old lady.

It took me a few days to figure out why the pair was laughing so hard at their own joke, because our modern context is so far removed from the context in which the joke was told. Egg processing is done on such a massive scale now that it's unthinkable that someone would be hand-packing eggs on her farm for sale in a store, let alone writing her name and address on an egg and requesting a letter. We also have expiration dates on cartons of eggs and industrial refrigeration, such that a store would certainly never stock spoiled eggs. Few of us have ever cracked open an egg to find it already rotten.

(That's the joke, as best I can tell... he opened the egg and found it so rotten that he concluded the lady who left the message must now be very old. It wasn't necessary at the time to explain egg rot.)

For your amusement, a classic moment with a wax cylinder.

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Sunday, May 10, 2009

Dvorak keyboard for Netbooks with Ubuntu

I got my Dell 9" Inspiron this weekend with the intention of taking it with me on AIDS/Lifecycle 8, tethered to my phone, so I can stay in touch during the ride. I got a refurb with Ubuntu on it, partly because it was the cheapest refurb they had but also because I figured a low-powered device would fare better with Linux than Windows XP. I've never tried Ubuntu before, being more of a FreeBSD fan, but I like the idea that it's based on Debian, which is probably the least cheesy Linux out there.

Ubuntu seems nice, and configuration is generally easy. They've apparently put a lot of effort into making many of these painful tasks simple, which I like. For something I plan to use as a desktop, I generally want to avoid editing system configuration files, rebuilding kernels, and generally geek-fapping. I'm too old for that shit.

One thing I did bother with, however, is the keyboard layout. I've been a Dvorak keyboard user since about 1998 when I switched over to alleviate some RSI trouble. Unfortunately, the netbook is really optimized for QWERTY; they've made some of the keys with special characters quite small. The good news is that most of these keys are meant to be hit with the right pinky finger, with the exception of the comma, period and slash keys (w, v, z in Dvorak). Fortunately these keys are used less frequently in most English writing.

One thing I desperately needed to fix was the positioning of the slash key. On a normal Dvorak keyboard, the left bracket becomes slash, and the right bracket becomes equals. (The hyphen moves to the apostrophe and the apostrophe moves to Q.) On a netbook, however, there are no separate keys for left and right brackets; in their place are the hyphen and equals. I use the slash key quite a bit, certainly more than the bracket keys, so it's more important to put the slash key in the right place than to maintain the re-mapping of the hyphen and equals keys.

To make a long story short, I decided to create an xkb dvorak variant that puts the slash where it "belongs" (right pinky finger, top row to the right of the 'P' key), and leaves the = in its original location, along with the braces and brackets.

This, it turns out, is a little bit of a pain in the ass, but doable.

I'm using a US keyboard, so first, I edited /etc/X11/xkb/symbols/us, adding this just after the regular dvorak entry:
partial alphanumeric_keys
xkb_symbols "dvorak-netbook" {
name[Group1]= "USA - Dvorak for Netbook";

include "us(dvorak)"

key <AE11> { [ slash, question ] };
key <AE12> { [ equal, plus ] };
key <AD11> { [ bracketleft, braceleft ] };
key <AD12> { [ bracketright, braceright ] };

That's the part that does the actual work. Now you must tell X/Gnome about what you've done. Edit /etc/X11/xkb/symbols.dir and add --p----- a------- us(dvorak-netbook) immediately after the us(dvorak) line. The resulting section will look like this:
-dp----- am------ us(basic)
--p----- a------- us(colemak)
--p----- a------- us(dvorak)
--p----- a------- us(dvorak-classic)
--p----- a------- us(dvorak-netbook)
--p----- a------- us(dvorak-l)
--p----- a------- us(dvorak-r)

Next, edit /etc/X11/xkb/rules/base.lst and add dvorak-netbook us: Dvorak for Netbook after the existing dvorak entries. The end result looks like this:
  dvorak          us: Dvorak
dvorak-intl us: Dvorak international
dvorak-l us: Left handed Dvorak
dvorak-r us: Right handed Dvorak
dvorak-classic us: Classic Dvorak
dvorak-netbook us: Dvorak for Netbook

For the last manual configuration bit, edit /etc/X11/xkb/base.xml, adding this block immediately after the existing dvorak entry:
<description>Dvorak for Netbook</description>

Once all of this is done, you can select the Dvorak for Netbook option in the Keyboard preferences in Gnome. I've observed that this particular preferences panel is a bit buggy; you may find it works better to remove other keyboard layouts once you've added the Dvorak for Netbook layout.

I'm still toying with the idea of swapping the locations of equals and hypen, since the hypen gets used fairly frequently, and with the dvorak mapping to the apostrophe, it ends up in an inconvenient location right of the spacebar. I keep hitting enter when I want a hyphen, since it really should be to the right of the semicolon key (the "S" in the Dvorak layout). I'll wait and see if I tend to use equals or hyphen more frequently. Both are pressed with the right pinky finger. There are other options as well, such as putting them all on the same key but accessing plus and equals via the ALT and ALT+SHIFT...

...but at least I know where to go if/when I decide to make that change.

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Friday, April 17, 2009

What Held Me Up This Morning

Almost immediately after I got on the freeway this morning, traffic was at a near standstill. My usual 30-minute commute to the office became an hour, because of this:

11:03AM 1039 1141 FOR MC RIDER
11:03AM WIT RHS - SIL BMW 325 - SAG

Translation: a red Pontiac Trans Am hit a motorcyclist and ran, sending the motorcycle's rider flying across all lanes of traffic, ending up on the right-hand shoulder. Someone in a silver BMW witnessed the incident and stopped on the right shoulder to assist.

That explains why the debris I saw in the road as I passed the scene was a single shoe.

What kind of asshole do you have to be to hit someone on a motorcycle, intentionally or not, regardless of fault, and not stop? (I suppose the kind of asshole who drives a Trans Am.)


Friday, March 13, 2009

I am Extremism/Intolerance

GFI Webmonitor 4 for ISA Server blocks this site, my personal blog, in its Default Web Filtering Policy. Those who are unfortunate enough to have their web access proxied through this software will receive the message "Default Web Filtering Policy Blocked site; category:extremism/intolerance"

This is, of course, laughable. The most extreme position I take here is that gay people (like me) ought to have the same civil rights as everybody else. And the only thing I'm intolerant of is intolerance. I admit it: I've spent years blogging about and fighting against intolerance, bigotry, and hate.

Sure, I've had a few choice words here and there to say about poorly-written software, but I've never seriously advocated "militant activities or extremism" or preached "intolerance to individuals and/or groups based upon discriminating or racial distinction" as the GFI Database Category Information page describes their "extremism/intolerance" category.

I've often complained in the past, especially with respect to government-mandated filtering, that there is absolutely no accountability on the part of these filter providers that the categories they choose for web sites are legitimate or deserved. All it takes is one cranky editor with a chip on his or her shoulder to flag your blog as "extremism/intolerance" and you're lumped in with the KKK. There's no way to demand an explanation or force a correction. It's worse in the case of government-mandated censorship: if the government requires the filtering, and the filtering is inaccurate with no accountability, then your First Amendment guarantee of free speech has been violated.

In cases like this one with GFI, I encourage them to continue making egregious errors like this one. Please, by all means, go hog wild flagging people's boring personal blogs as "extremism/intolerance," "lingerie/bikini," "pornography" or "tasteless" because you don't happen to like something they say on some random post. Please, do it more. Because one of the things companies, libraries, and schools will evaluate when choosing a web filter product will be the credibility of its ratings. And the more you flag civil libertarians' personal blogs as "intolerant" the lower your credibility becomes. Eventually, if all goes well, you'll flag yourself right out of business.

And I'll still be blogging.

UPDATE: GFI does NOT flag (the American "Family" Association) or (the "Family" Research Council), both avowed and staunch anti-gay hate organizations as "extremism/intolerance". It also doesn't flag (the Catholic League) which spends a great deal of its time espousing homophobia. (Mormons) and, both of which advocate discrimination against homosexual people on their sites, are also not categorized as intolerant. I think it's pretty clear what's going on here.

UPDATE 2: GFI's US office appears to be located in Cary, North Carolina, a suburb of Raleigh. You might remember Cary, North Carolina from the Cary Christian School's distribution of pamphlets authored by a white supremacist downplaying the horror of slavery in the United States. Obviously, this had nothing to do with GFI in particular, but to put it mildly, this is not a progressive part of the country. It would seem, based on their calling ME intolerant but not calling anti-gay hate groups intolerant and the part of the nation from which they hail that their decisions are based on their own personal political agenda and bias and not on an objective analysis of a site's content.

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Thursday, February 26, 2009

Bluetooth and Nokia PC Suite

I recently suffered a frustrating experience trying to make Nokia PC Suite work with my 6650. The problems began when I changed from using an ancient 6682 to the newer 6650; after suspending and resuming my laptop (an IBM/Lenovo Thinkpad T60p), PC Suite would lose its bluetooth connection to the phone.

Things went from bad to worse, with PC Suite eventually refusing to talk to the phone at all, just giving the message "Cannot authenticate the phone" when trying to pair with it. Moreover, Windows would behave as though the phone were trying to pair with the PC when PC Suite was trying to pair with the phone, asking for a security code (when it should have been the phone asking for a code to match the one given to PC Suite). Installing the very newest drivers from the IBM homepage made things worse still, with bluetooth failing to work at all, giving the message "No local bluetooth device was detected" despite it plainly being found in the device manager, though the "Bluetooth Bus Enumerator" device had disappeared.

To fix this nightmare, I had to uninstall the Thinkpad driver in the device manager, then uninstall PC Suite, "PC Connectivity Solution," "Nokia Connectivity Cable driver," all instances of "Windows Driver Package - Nokia *," and "Thinkpad Bluetooth with Enhanced Data Rate Software" from the "Add/Remove Programs" control panel.

Then I had to run the installation software for the last 5.1 release of the Thinkpad Bluetooth software. This is not the current release; the 5.5 driver version does not work properly with Nokia PC Suite as far as I can tell. Fortunately I still had the 5.1 release on my laptop. I'm not sure if it can still be downloaded from IBM, Broadcom, or Lenovo, or where one would find it if it can.

Then I finally reinstalled PC Suite, and everything works again.

Hopefully this helps others in the same or a similar situation.


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