Friday, August 19, 2016

Nikon: The Definition of Poor Customer Support

I generally love Nikon cameras and lenses.  They continue to come out with innovative products that I can use as a professional photographer.  For instance, I leaving for a trip to South Africa soon, and I discovered that Nikon now offers new and improved lenses for wildlife photography.  Nikon has a new affordable 200-500mm f5.6 lens that is very highly rated.  I ended up buying a used 80-400mm VR lens which is similar to the Canon lens that has the same zoom range. I bought the new Nikon D500 body about a month ago -- it is awesome fast and well built. 

However, Nikon's support of its customers -- both professionals and amateurs -- has always been pretty bad.  I am still in disbelief of the utterly terrible customer service that I received from Nikon in the past two days.  Just unbelievably bad.

Here's the story:

After much research, I decided to buy a Nikon 80-400mm lens, used, from a seller on Amazon.  The seller's listing said " All original Nikon parts and accessories included. US version and comes in the original Nikon gold box." 

The lens arrives promptly, but there is no US warranty card, which all Nikon lenses come with now to prove that they are US-bought and not gray market lenses.  Nikon and other camera manufacturers have spent tons of money on informing the general public, particularly keen photographers, to avoid "gray market" lenses at all costs.  Briefly, "gray market" refers to gear that has been imported by unsanctioned retailers, and was not intended to be sold in the US.  The gear is the same as "US warrantied" gear but is generally cheaper.  Nikon and Canon refuse to repair gray market gear.  If you are a photographer in the US, you should be very careful to only purchase US-warrantied gear from Nikon or Canon.  There's often no way to tell the difference --  you should only buy from authorized retailers.  Only Nikon can tell you if your gear is US-warrantied or not. 

I received the lens on Wednesday night.  On Thursday, I tried calling Nikon.  I am Nikon Professional Services (NPS) member, which supposedly offers pros (you have to certify yourself as a pro every two years and run through some hoops) a bit faster and better service than the general public.  I had a couple of numbers for NPS.  I am sorry to say that the customer service SUCKED. 

It was impossible to get through to a real human being on the NPS lines!  Here's what happens: You call the NPS number, listen to the robot phone tree, then you press 4 for tech support.  When you do that, the robot tells you to hang up and call another number!  You call that number, three times, and each time someone lifts the phone off the receiver and then hangs up.  I know what it sounds like. 

I called another Nikon number, "tech support" for "regular folks."  I explained my question -- I had a used Nikon lens, could supply the serial number, and wanted to know if it was a US-warrantied lens or not.  A Nancy in Pennsylvania kept asking me for my contact information, which was irrelevant.  She wanted to  know my phone number, email address, when I registered the lens purchase, and the list of questions goes on.  The questions were all completely irrelevant to my situation.  This interrogation went on for ten minutes. 

After taking down all this unnecessary information, Nancy finally told me that she could not give me an answer to my (very simple) question. I would have to send the lens into a repair center! 

Once again, I had just purchased a used lens.  No, I had not had time to register the lens, nor would I be able to do so since it did not come with a US warranty card.  I just wanted to know if the lens was a US-warrantied lens, or a gray market lens.  At this point, I have the choice of returning the lens to the seller; or keeping it.  Nikon should be helpful in this situation, not utterly unhelpful. 

Does Nikon's reply make any sense in the real world whatsoever?  Insisting that I send this used, newly purchased lens to their technical repair center is utterly unhelpful and utterly ludicrous. 

Nikon: your customer service sucks!

Their email to me is below.  Read it and laugh.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Wired Magazine's Tips for Macs That Are Slow to Shut Down

Wow -- I read Wired magazine for a while, but then their content seemed to get stale and uninteresting. 

Here's a tip from their website that seems to have solved my problem.  I have a Mac running Mavericks (yes, I am way behind the times).  When I have tried to shut it down recently, it took forever.


Shutting down the computer seems like the easiest feature to get right. But for some (including me), it's become a patience game as the computer gets stuck on the grey screen prior to a full shutdown. To get your Mac back on track without resorting to holding down the power button until it shuts off you'll need to hop into the Terminal and make a few changes. Copy and paste the commands below one at a time. After the first command, you'll be prompted to enter your password.

sudo defaults write /System/Library/LaunchDaemons/ ExitTimeOut -int 1

sudo defaults write /System/Library/LaunchDaemons/ ExitTimeOut -int 1

sudo defaults write /System/Library/LaunchDaemons/ ExitTimeOut -int 1

sudo defaults write /System/Library/LaunchDaemons/ ExitTimeOut -int 1

sudo defaults write /System/Library/LaunchAgents/ ExitTimeOut -int 1

After you've run all these commands in the Terminal, open up Disk Utility from /Applications/Utilities folder.

Select the drive you've installed Mavericks on and select Repair Permissions. After Disk Utility is finished, you should be able to select shutdown and restart with no more lagging or stalling problems. 

Thanks WIRED!

Monday, August 1, 2016

FreedomPop Phone Gets Suspended if You Go Over 400Mb Data Usage

FreedomPop is getting more difficult to use.  They are starting to institute more charges.  I am OK with this for the time being -- getting a plan that gives me 500Mb data free per month is still worth it to me.

However, it turns out that if you go over 400Mb in a month, then FreedomPop won't allow you to use your phone unless you enable auto-top up.  This means that if you don't watch your data usage closely, you could be charged up to $40 per Gb of data.

I have an LG G2 FreedomPop phone and recently went over 400Mb of data use.  It turns out that the credit on the phone expired in June, so my phone was suspended.  Here's how to get your phone back up and running (to un-suspend or re-activate it).

How to reactivate an FP phone:

Sign in to your FreedomPop account and select "Overview" under the "Billing" tab.
Next, select "Credit Balance" below "Recent Transactions".
Lastly, select "Click here to Reactivate".

Here's a longer explanation:
If you go over 400Mb, FreedomPop will disable your phone unless you have billing information and other settings set to their liking -- so they can charge you if you go over 500Mb of data. 

I've always recommended to folks that they disable the Automatic Top-Up feature.  This way you supposedly will never be charged by FP.  However, from an FP forum:

When you disable the Automatic Top-Up feature your account will be suspended when you reach the top-up threshold. However, if you exceed your free data allotment in a single session, your account may switch to pay-as-you-go mode. Note that data usage reporting may be delayed by up to three hours.
Our system suspends activity if you are within 100MB of your monthly data allotment and your account has a credit balance of less than $2.

So to get a phone working:
You have to have an active, non-expired credit balance of more than $2.  My LG phone has a credit balance of $5, but it expires every 30 days.  It was a simple matter to go to their website and re-activate this credit balance. 

Here are some comments from various forums:

I added $10 in credit that I have to go in and re-activate (because they deactivate it) every 3 months. This keeps me from being shut off when I reach the 400 meg limit.

This happens quite a bit nowadays. Your best bet is to try and add $10 credit and then it should unsuspend. An admin can always refund the credit charge.

To reactivate without needing customer service, just change the email address on file so before the @ you add +inactive. Then reactivate your device at with your current email.

A good forum post on this issue is here:

Friday, July 8, 2016

A List of Book Recommendations

A good book recommendation is a great gift. Here are some of my favorite authors and books. 

I don’t include books and authors that are incredibly popular and well-known, such as Hemingway, Steinbeck, JK Rowling (Harry Potter), JRR Tolkien (Lord of the Rings trilogy), and others. 

Neal Stephenson is one of my favorite authors. He is revered by SF fans but is much more than that, more of a historian with a science bent. A quick read and one of my all-time favorite books is Snow Crash. Cryptonomicon is an absolute masterpiece: long, convoluted, but ultimately well worth the effort. I've not been able to get through his later very dense three-part novels like The Baroque Cycle.  Reamde is a light book, somewhat entertaining.

Anything by Michael Lewis (Moneyball, The New New Thing, The Big Short) or Malcolm Gladwell (Outliers, Blink, The Tipping Point). They write nonfiction about things that you would normally take for granted or not think about.

Anything by Richard Preston, a great nonfiction writer.  I picked up his book The Hot Zone and was immediately hooked.  I was fascinated by The Wild Trees, about folks who explore the redwood canopy in Northern California.  I bought his book First Light, about astronomers, but have for some reason not "gotten into" this book like his others. 

Cormac McCarthy is a genius: All the Pretty Horses, The Road, and No Country for Old Men (which the movie follows very closely).  Great writing about characters of the American and Mexican West. 

Gene Wolfe's The Book of the New Sun "is a long, magical novel in four volumes." Shadow & Claw contains the first two: The Shadow of the Torturer and The Claw of the Conciliator.  The four books in this series are excellent, different. 

Mystery/crime novels, not serious reading: anything by Michael Connelly. Start with The Poet, and you may likely want to read the rest of his books. 

Voyage of the Narwhal by Andrea Barret: History of the Franklin expedition, told in an interesting and riveting way.

A Fish Caught in Time by Samantha Weinberg: well-written book about discovery of the coelacanth, a prehistoric fish thought to be extinct. 

Geek Love by Katherine Dunn: absolutely bizarre, but a good read. 

Worst.Person.Ever by Douglas Coupland.  Hilarious light read.  (Thanks F-Bomb for the recommendation)!

Isaac Asimov is too well-known to be included in this list.  But I have to give a shoutout to his Foundation Trilogy, which I read every eight years or so.  It's a masterpiece. 

Recent good reads:
Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life by William Finnegan: excellent memoir about a journalist's lifelong love of surfing.  This book won a 2016 Pulitzer Prize. 

Scott Turow's Innocent was surprising good.  His other books put me to sleep. 

Neil Young’s Waging Heavy Peace autobiography rambled, but was worth a read. 

Jared Diamond: Guns, Germs, Steel.  I listened to the audiobook version while swimming laps.  It was interesting.  I am not sure I would have been able to stay awake if I read the text. 

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Using a Windows Laptop as a Media Center

Here are some tips when using a Windows laptop connected to a large-screen HDTV. 

I have a Windows 7 laptop connected to a 50-inch HDTV in my living room and office, and it serves as the media center.  Movie files and TV shows are played from this laptop, and I can stream video from Amazon or Netflix.  The laptop even serves as a DVR using a program called Windows Media Center (WMC).  

1.  How do I turn off my laptops display when plugged into my television?
I prefer to have my laptop closed when connected to my 50" plasma HDTV.  I have long been able to do this with my Mac, but until last week, never figured out how to do this with a Windows 7 laptop.  Here's the solution, from a forum:

"Another way (if you use a separate keyboard and mouse) is go to power options and change closing the lid action from "sleep" to "do nothing", that way you can simply close the lid and carry on watching on the TV. It's also useful for extending battery life when just listening to music (just flip the lid down and you've got the screen off but the music still plays)."

Here's a screengrab of how to do this -- thanks for the website:

2.  My Windows 7 laptop is the computer that connects to the TV in my office and living room.  I often will have a file on my Mac that I'd like to transfer to my w7 laptop.  Here's how to do it:

This web page describes the process:

From the above page:
Set up sharing on a Windows 7 or Windows 8 computer

To share a folder, right-click the folder’s icon, then choose Share with. Choose “Specific people,” then follow the onscreen instructions.

You may need to disable the Internet Connection Firewall in the Advanced pane of the device’s properties. If you can’t disable the Internet Connection Firewall, make sure TCP port 445 is open. For more information, refer to the manual and onscreen help that came with the Windows computer.

You may need to restart the Windows computer after setting it up.

If you have never set up the Windows computer for sharing, open Network and Sharing Center, then follow the onscreen instructions to set up a new network.

3.  I run a free Microsoft program called Windows Media Center (WMC) which is included with Windows 7 machines.  I have had WMC on my Windows laptops for several years.  A Windows 7 laptop thus serves as a DVR.  It records shows flawlessly from over-the-air (OTA) using an antenna, and from Comcast's unencrypted basic cable stations.  I use SiliconDust HDHomerun tuners.  The tuners take a TV signal from cable or antenna, convert it to a digital IP signal, then WMC in a Windows laptop is able to tune into specific stations.  Great TV guide listings.  It's basically a Tivo or a Comcast DVR that I don't have to pay monthly fees for. 

With a Windows laptop with WMC, I can view live TV wirelessly, or view the programs recorded on a DVR via wifi. Xbox 360s serve as "extenders" so you can see WMC content (live TV, recorded shows) on other TVs in the house.

Unfortunately, with Windows 10, WMC is no longer included in Windows.  I believe that you can download it for free and install it, however. 

Use Cell Phones as Security Cameras

Use Cell Phones as Security Cameras
I have been using Freedompop cameras for the past three or four years.  This service is great!  You buy a refurbished phone from them, and they give you a free allowance of 500Mb of data (actually, more like 400Mb) per month along with 200 calls and 500 texts.  If you use more, you have to pay.  They are sneaky -- no doubt about it -- but if you learn how to disable their premium services and automatic data top off, then the service really is free.  They use the Sprint network. 

I bought an HTC Evo Design phone when I first started with this service, and I've been buying a new phone every six months or so for both my wife and myself.  The phones work just fine wherever there is a Sprint signal. 

I have three or four Freedompop phones sitting around, unused.  I learned that I could use these phones with Android apps that turned them into security cameras. 

1.  The first app that I tried was Salient Eye.  This is an elegant little program.  the baic version is free to use.  You simply install the app on an Android phone, and then the app uses the phone's front or rear camera to detect motion.  When motion detection is on, and motion is detected, the app can sound an alarm from the phone, send an email alert, send a text alert, and create an "event page" that contains anywhere from three to three hundred high-resolution images.  These images are immediately uploaded to Salient Eye's servers. 

I bought the $14 per year Salient Eye remote app to control several cameras.  With the remote app on my usual phone, and another Android phone with Salient Eye (server) app on it, I could turn the slave phone on or off remotely.  I had up to three slave phones in various places, all ready to detect motion and create event pages. 

It's a great app, in theory.  However, I cannot recommend this app.  The problem is that it requires a wifi signal to work well (this is what the app developer told me).  If there's only a cell signal, then the slave phone, upon detecting motion, may create an event page that includes dozens and even hundreds of images.  Those images are all high-resolution.  The developer told me that they do not wish to create event pages with low-resolution images -- they want high-resolution images in order to get details of any intruder.  However, each event gobbled up 15 to 25Mb of cellular data.  For two phones, when they detected motion (falsely, perhaps due to changing light levels in a room) -- they created event pages and exceeded my data allowance within a few minutes!!  This was terrible and frustrating, and therefore using Salient Eye with my cell phones made no sense at all. 

I tried using this app for months, testing various locations, phones, and settings.  I finally gave up after one phone went through 1.2Gb of data in a few minutes on a motion detection event.  Yes, that's 1.2Gb of data.  I had to pay Freedompop for going over my data allowance for the first time in three years.  Normally Freedompop locks my phone if it goes over 420Mb or so -- which I like, since I know to stop using data on that phone.  In this case, Salient Eye used up my data so fast that Freedompop was unable to turn my data off in time. 

There were other problems, probably related to the fact that the Sprint network signal around my garage where I had the phones was not strong.  The slave phones would lose the cell network signal, and I would have to physically go to the locations to reset the phones.  This happened constantly, so I could not trust my phones with Salient Eye to keep an eye on my remote locations for more than a day or so before they went down. 

I contacted Salient Eye's development team.  They refunded my annual fee for Salient Eye remote, but I asked them for answers to my questions in hopes that I could get this app working.  They gave me some answers, but nothing helped.  I did not really get the feeling that they cared too much about solving problems. 

a.  The good: easy to set up and understand, sends email alerts as well as texts, can be turned on and off remotely, can see event pages of images remotely. 

b.  The bad: phones set up for motion detection often get disconnected.  The dealbreaker is that motion detection events can run through 25Mb to 1.2Gb of data within a few minutes.  Yes, that's 1.2Gb of data. 

2.  I next tried an app called Alfred.  Alfred is just as simple to set up as Salient Eye.  It produces videos of motion events, as opposed to stills.  The resolution of the videos is fairly low, but it's probably enough to identify intruders. 

Alfred, so far, is usable with my cell phones.  I can log into my slave phones from the Alfred app on my main (master) phone, or on the Alfred website.  Each time Alfred detects a motion event, my master phone gets an alert, and I can view the video that shows motion.  It works pretty well at detecting motion, and each motion event uses up about 1Mb of data.  This is small enough so I can set a phone running Alfred at a remote location, and it can run all month without going over my data allotment of 500Mb.  Alfred seems to maintain its network connection far better than Salient Eye -- nearly every time I check my slave phones on my web browser, they show up as connected.  I can then log in and see what's going on in my remote locations in real time.  

This is the web page for the Alfred app.  I have three slave phones serving as motion detectors.  Only one slave phone is currently turned on and acting as a motion detection camera.  

For both Salient Eye and Alfred, if it is dark, the cameras can't see anything.  For my areas, I have a light connected to a motion sensor, so the light turns on. 

The big failing with Alfred is that it does not send email alerts when motion is detected!  When a slave phone detects motion, then I only get an alert on my master phone.  I asked Alfred's tech support if they could allow email alerts, but they did not think that this feature was useful enough to put in.  What if I am out of the US and can't use my cell phone?  An email alert would solve this problem, and I could forward email alerts to someone else who is housesitting. 

Another issue I have with Alfred is that there's no way to turn it on or off.  You click on the app icon, and it's on -- and there's no way to tell if it is really on or not.  If you enter the room that it is monitoring, there's no way to tell if it is on or off, and it is unnecessarily difficult to turn it off.  You just see a black screen. 

In conclusion, the Alfred app is reasonably robust, it maintains a cell phone network connection pretty well, and I recommend it.  It could be improved but it is a great start.  

Clicking on the icon showing shaking heads on the Alfred web page takes you to this page of motion events.  Clicking on a still image shows the video of the motion event.  


Miscellaneous Windows 7 Computer Tips: Stop Windows 10 and Adobe Reader Updates; Make Windows Update Behave

Miscellaneous Windows 7 Computer Tips
I have been a longtime Mac user, but I have several Windows laptops running Windows 7 around the house and office.  Sometimes it's easier just firing up a Windows laptop and running a Windows program, than it is to run Windows on a Mac using Parallels. 

Here are a few tips about Windows machines that I've gathered. 

1.  Stop those annoying Windows 10 updates.  Download the small program never10.exe from here:

From the website:
Never 10 is an easy to use utility which gives users control over whether their Windows 7 or 8.1 machines will upgrade themselves to Windows 10.

You can read more on the website. 

2.  I got tired of Adobe Reader constantly asking to update.  The way to turn off this annoying notification is below:

STEP 1: Open Adobe Reader, Click Edit then Preferences.
STEP 2: Now Click on the Updater Section and choose “Do not download or install updates automatically”

I do this only for my Windows machines that I use as media centers -- I have no important or private work or personal files on these machines, and I just don't use Adobe Reader on these machines much.  I do not recommend turning off updates for any software or machine unless you know what you are doing. 

3.  I have been baffled and frustrated for the past ten years at my Windows update settings.  I've always set my machines up so that I would have the choice of when to update them.  Yet, nearly every time that I've restarted a machine, I'd have to wait anywhere from five to 30 minutes for the machine to install updates.  I can't believe that businesspeople put up with this crap.  What if you are headed off to a meeting, in a rush, and you accidentally restart your Windows laptop -- and then are forced to wait 20 minutes for the updates to install?  The only alternative is to force your machine to shut down, which might irreparably damage your machine.  If you are relying on your laptop for a business presentation and force it to shut down -- you might not be able to get your laptop up again in time for your presentation.  If you let the updates run, you might find that your machine no longer works the way you want it.  I just can't believe this. 

I finally got fed up with the behavior of Windows Update and did some research.  Here's what I found on various forums. 

These folks describe the same problem that I had:

"I should have mentioned these systems are both running Win 7 Home Premium (x64) and to perfectly clear the choice in Windows update they had selected was “Download updates but let me choose whether to install them”, but the pre-selected updates installed automatically when they attempted to shut their systems down."

"My choice of update options for years has been to “Check for updates but let me choose whether to download and install them”. However, when I turned off my machine last Thursday (2/18), it gave the warning to not shut down while updates were installed. I was frustrated, so I went to bed and left the machine alone until the next evening. When I re-started the machine, it again told me that it was finishing update installation. I was perplexed that this had happened, so I checked control panel, looking to see what updates had been installed. NONE WERE LISTED! I even checked to see if any restore point had been created, and none had."

Here's the solution:

When you choose “Download updates but let me choose whether to install them”, this actually means “download the updates in the background and, if I don’t uncheck them, install them when I reboot”.  This is NOT the behavior that I and other users likely want. 

Instead, on Windows 7 machines -- choose the setting “CHECK for updates but let me choose whether to download and install them”.  This way Windows will not update. 

"Exactly right! Don’t give MS a chance to get its foot in your door. If you let them download the updates, they nag you until you install them. It’s best to just have them “check”, and then choose what you want or don’t want. It still works that way on my Win 7, but I never know from one day to the next what’s gonna happen!"

THIS (“CHECK for updates but let me choose whether to download and install them”) is the correct way to do it. You get the notice in the try and then you review them and download them when YOU (and not MS) are ready. I have always used this technique. Why let the system ever download anything if you “may decide not” to authorize installation? Maybe it is my old timer remembrance of 180MD HDDs or metered dial-up modem connections, but I always wanted to review what was downloaded first."

Of course, you should check regularly:
"Then, on regular intervals, make the time to reconfigure and check, assume you feel it’s necessary to check for updates at all any more – and I question that more and more as time goes on. Microsoft is way beyond turning the corner to acting just like what we used to consider malware. Never forget what a “PUP” is (look it up)."