Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Do Not Enter the Pool If...

Hey, I am a big fan of Hampton Inns.  They are relatively inexpensive and generally are clean and comfortable.  You generally know what you are getting. 

One of the worst nights I ever had was in New Orleans, at a Doubletree hotel.  The walls were thin and for some reason folks would always slam their doors when leaving.  Maybe the doors slammed themselves.  Anyway, my wife and I were constantly being woken up by the sound of doors slamming down the hall. 

This pool sign is from the Hampton Inn in Orlando, that has seen better days.   Don't go in the pool if you have ...diarrhea!  Yikes!  Do people really need to be told this? 


Sunday, October 20, 2013

Updating a Windows Vista Computer to Windows 7: A Funny Error Message from Microsoft

I am actually impressed with Windows 7.  It does everything that I want it to, and it is fast and understandable. 

I own something like five Windows 7 laptops that come with Windows 7 Home Premium.  They are so inexpensive that it's easier to just buy one rather than try to buy a copy of Windows 7 and install it so that it will run in Parallels on my Mac.  Doing that raises all kinds of problems.  If you upgrade your hard drive in your Mac and have a copy of Windows 7 installed, for instance, from what I understand, you have to call Microsoft and explain the situation so that you can continue using your copy of Windows 7.  I've even heard that if you connect and disconnect an external hard drive, this can cause problems.  I am a bit more certain that if you install a copy of Windows 7 on your Mac using Parallels, changing certainly configurations on your Mac will cause the copy of Windows 7 to be inactivated -- necessitating a call and possible hassles with Microsoft. 

I have an old HP Slimline desktop computer that runs Vista and came with a TV tuner.  This was my first experience with Windows Media Center and using a Windows machine as a digital video recorder (DVR) rather than paying rent and monthly subscription fees for a Comcast DVR or a Tivo.  WMC is an excellent program, and with it, I had my own DVR on a laptop for years. 

I actually pulled my old Vista machine out of storage a few weeks ago to test it and possibly sell it.  I've upgraded the machine from Windows Vista to Windows 7.  The process took a long time but was relatively painless. 

I did encounter this hilarious error message. "To check for updates, you must first install an update for Windows Update."








Friday, October 18, 2013

Comcast Website Puts Customers in Infinite Loops: Videos to Prove it

Comcast tries, I think.  I posted a complaint about my frustrations with their service in a blog post a couple of weeks ago, and someone from Comcast actually commented on it and gave me an email to contact.  After writing to that email address, I actually got a call from a nice, helpful, professional person in Comcast’s escalated customer service department.  She had a technician in their “Tech Central” department call me.  Fortunately, I actually answered the phone when he called, something I seldom do since I get few phone calls and I generally screens calls rather than answer the phone. 

So a suggestion – Comcast – most people are like me and don’t answer the phone – we screen calls.  Please let your customers call your technicians back.  If you don’t do this, then you make life much, much harder for everyone because of the phone tag. 

Here’s their email: we_can_help@cable.comcast.com


I obtained a Cablecard today from Comcast’s local office, so that I could use my Windows 7 laptop with Windows Media Center as a DVR once again (see my earlier blog post for more). 

This blog post contains videos that I recorded to show just how bad Comcast’s websites and phone activation lines are. 

Ever heard of an infinite loop?  That’s when you code and are not good at coding, and make a mistake.  Your program repeats itself endlessly.  Comcast seems to be particularly good at putting its customers into infinite loops on their websites. 

Here’s the video.  I am using my Firefox browser and trying to activate my new Cablecard.  I’ve already tried the phone twice and been disconnected (more details on that experience below).  Here’s what’s going on in this video.  I’ve gone to the Comcast activation site, entered my account number and phone number (BTW, Comcast, most of us have more than one phone number and so if you always ask us for the phone number associated with our account, that can be extremely frustrating, ESPECIALLY if we don’t keep rigorous track of what phone number we gave to you.   Even worse is if we have two different homes and mistakenly give you our cell phone for one house, and you use that phone to go and change the account at our other home unknowing to us). 

Anyway, I am on the Comcast activation page.  I see that they have too many set top boxes on the page.  The new Cablecard is the one at the top, and I’ve clicked it to activate now.  I’ve deselected all the other boxes either because they are already activated and working or I don’t have them plugged in (Comcast shipped me six rather than three DTA boxes for some reason). 

Because I only want to activate ONE item, the dialog comes up asking me if I want to bookmark this page and continue.  I click that box.  It just shunts me back to the activation page.  Over and over and over again.  If I click the other answer, which is “RETURN TO ACTIVATION” then, well, I go back to the activation page.  Over and over again.  Infinite loop. 
video

I then tried this in the Chrome browser.  I was actually able to get out of this loop using the Chrome browser.  I have noticed that with Comcast, you often are not able to get their websites to do what you want until you try different browsers.  Same with the government.  But here’s the thing – just about every website (other than Comcast's) works with Firefox. 


Activating a Comcast Cablecard to Work with Windows Media Center and a SiliconDust HD Homerun Prime Cablecard Tuner.

I am writing down the various steps that I have had to take to use the above DVR gear with Comcast, in hopes that this will help other folks. 

So, Comcast decided (just because they can) to encrypt the channels that they were previously required to broadcast unencrypted on the clearQAM channels over cable.

I previously had a nice setup using a SiliconDust HD Homerun dual tuner to take unencrypted HD signals; a Windows 7 laptop with the very nice software (that came free with every copy of Windows 7 Home Premium) Windows Media Center took the signals from the HomeRun tuner over my home network and recorded the shows.  In short, I had a Tivo without paying any membership fees. 

Once Comcast encrypted its signals, I had to work out a new solution.  After talking to Comcast support, I was told that even with my Limited Basic account (Comcast’s lowest tier of service), I could get what is called a Cablecard.  This turns out to be a PCMCIA card, something that you put inside a tuner box to decode the signal coming from Comcast.  SiliconDust makes an HD Homerun Prime box that accepts Cablecards.  I ordered one of these through Amazon, it arrived yesterday, today I got a Cablecard from the local Monterey office, and now I am back to watching and recording shows on my Windows 7 laptop using Windows Media Center. 

I encountered several problems in getting Windows Media Center set up with the new Cablecard and HD Homerun Prime tuner. 

1.  Trying to get Comcast on the phone to activate any new piece of gear is a real hassle.  This was no exception.  I describe my problems in a separate blog entry, complete with a video that gives some sense of how frustrating it is to try to contact Comcast. 

I did so this morning and have called the activation phone number three times, spending over an hour, trying to reach a person to have my Cablecard activated.  The phone tree keeps disconnecting me.  It's incredibly frustrating.

I then finally got my Cablecard activated by going to:
www.comcast.com/activate

which is exactly what the Comcast rep in the local office told me not to do.  I had problems doing this with my Firefox browser at first (an infinite loop), but using Chrome, I was able to activate the Cablecard. 

2.  I encountered numerous error messages when trying to set up WMC with the Cablecard tuner.  Here are some web pages that helped with various error messages:

a.  Error message: “Your computer is not digital cable ready.  You will not be able to set it up for use with a CableCard.” 

One website discussed going into Control Panel – System –Administration and re-running the Windows Experience utility again.  This utility determines if your computer has enough horsepower and graphics power to work well. 

This did not help me.  I found this website that explained my problem:

http://blogs.windows.com/windows/b/extremewindows/archive/2010/12/30/digital-cable-advisor-lets-you-know-if-your-windows-7-pc-is-digital-cable-ready.aspx

This website explained how to enable digital cable for my Windows Media Center laptop, but then I enountered this error message:

b.  “graphics fail: your graphics card or driver doesn’t support content protection.”

Now, I know that my laptop is fine; I used to run Windows Media Center on it and view all kinds of shows in HD.  I found this website that provided a solution to the problem.  After becoming a registered user on this website, I was able to download a zip file that bypassed the DCA (digital cable advisor) settings in Windows Media Center: 

missingremote.com/guide/override-digital-cable-advisor-windows-media-center-7

c.  I was almost there.  I ran “set up TV signal” in Windows Media Center again, and I got through most steps until encountering this error message:

“the PlayReady update was incomplete.  You will not be able to watch or record protected content until the update is successful. 

I found the answer to my problem at this website:
http://answers.microsoft.com/en-us/windows/forum/windows_8-winapps/playready-in-media-center-will-not-update/288f025e-1543-4152-b269-e94427d1be4b

Method 3
Open up Windows "Services" via Control Panel > Administrative Tools > Services.
With Media Center Open and Showing "The PlayReady update was incomplete. Do you want to try again?" Go to the "Services" panel you just opened and scroll all the way down to "Windows Media Center Receiver Services", double click on it, then click "Stop"

Navigate to the ReadyPlay HIDDEN folder (C:\ProgramData\Microsoft\PlayReady) and then delete the mspr.hds file.  {I could not find this file or folder on my Windows 7 Machine, but as it turns out, just following these steps worked!}

Go back to the STILL OPEN & RUNNING, Media Center and click "Yes" and "Next" to the Update PlayReady question. It should immediately zip past and say update complete & you can watch and record copy protected.


3.  Once I was able to get past the above errors, I got a message that I had to enter a product key, which was entered automatically. 

product key MW4F-r2T2...xxxxxx : WMC automatically entered this. 


After three hours of work, I am back to where I was before October 1, which is when Comcast ridiculously decided to encrypt all the broadcast channels on clear QAM.  Thanks for all the work, Comcast!  At least your escalated technical services folks are of some help.  Forget trying to get someone to help you on your first call, though.  See my other blog entry for my experience in this regard.  

Update: My Cablecard and HD Homerun Prime setup worked for a few hours on Friday after I went through the above processed.  I seemed to activate the Cablecard on Comcast's website, www.comcast.com/activate.  However, I kept getting calls from Comcast's elevated tech support (which I missed) that I needed to call in to give pairing codes.  Sure enough, around 8pm, I was no longer able to view channels on my WMC setup using a Cablecard, Windows Media Center running on a Windows 7 laptop, and SiliconDust HD Homerun Prime.  

I had been told to call this number to activate my Cablecard, but I gave up after three tries: (855) 652-3446.  If you like to listen to weird clicks and computer tones, being commanded to enter various numbers, put on hold while listening to more weird clicks, and finally being disconnected after patiently waiting, perhaps you can try this number. 
 
But the service tech left this other number for me to call to "pair" the Cablecard -- (877) 405-2298.  I called this number, I got through fairly easily, and the technician actually was fairly knowledgeable and helpful!  She had me go into WMC and read off some serial numbers.  After ten minutes or so, I was done and my channels were back working.  I now am back to where I was before October 1, $150 poorer (I had to buy a new HD Homerun Prime) and about 24 total hours spent on figuring everything out.  Why, Comcast, why waste your customers' time so much?  Why?  
 

Thursday, October 17, 2013

A Very Useful Mac Tip



Mac tips:
huge Mac tip: to choose a startup drive, upon starting up, hold down the option key (alt key on PC keyboards).  This will bring up a screen that gives you a choice of startup drives

I've long installed different versions (an old and a new) of the Mac OS on different partitions or different drives in my Mac Pro tower machines.  This lets me use newer applications and new features, while I can start up my machine in an older operating system to use older applications that no longer run on newer machines.  Right now, for example, I am running OS 10.6.8 Snow Leopard on the same machine that has OS 10.7 Lion running.  I can boot into either operating system to use older or newer applications that may not run otherwise.  

One huge tip that I came across was the above.  I've found that when installing a new operating system, this tip works most frequently, almost without fail, to choose the operating system that you want.  Other methods, such as holding down the C key to start up from a DVD, or choosing the startup drive/operating system in System Preferences, only works about half the time.  In fact, I remember countless periods of frustration where I was trying to install a new operating system from an Apple DVD, and holding down the  C key did not work.  

The only other method that works as well as the above is connecting a Mac to another Mac with a Firewire drive, then 

Small but incredibly useful applications that I use all the time, which are rarely mentioned in the press: 

Carbon Copy Cloner -- I use this utility all the time to back up my drives and to create mirror images of my drives.  

SnapZ Pro -- an incredibly useful utility which lets me capture parts of my screen.  I can even record video clips up to 2 hours long using this utility; it captures video that is playing on my screen at a choice of screen rates (I use 30 fps) and then converts those thousands of screen grabs into a very watchable and hearable Quicktime video.  

Thunderbird, a great email program that lets me organize my emails into different folders.  I can archive old folders of emails using the great Import/Export Tools too.  Thunderbird is just awesome.  Having an email program that grabs emails and then stores them on your laptop, as opposed to using a web-based email program, is great.  If I am traveling on a boat, for instance, and I get a wireless signal temporarily, I can download all my emails onto my laptop using Thunderbird, then read and reply to those emails offline.  Later, when I am online again, I can send all emails.  

I use an iPad to read emails when I am running around town, but I have found that if you only use an iPhone or iPad to view emails, then you will not organize those emails into folders, and you will not remember the history of emails.  This might be OK when communicating with friends, but it certainly will not work if you are pounding out a contract with a client, for instance. 


Monday, October 14, 2013

Are All Your QAM Channels Scrambled? Comcast scrambles clear QAM stations...some solutions

Are All Your QAM Channels Scrambled? 

11-16-13 Update to this post: It's been a month now, and for those folks who have come to this post, I would like to summarize my experience.

I used to be very happy using a Windows 7 laptop running Windows Media Center along with a Silicondust HD HomeRun dual-tuner unit to record HD stations from the clear QAM band on my Comcast cable line.  I have not paid any DVR rental fees and have subscribed to Comcast’s Limited Basic Service.  The HD shows were broadcast over the cable, called clear QAM.  The shows were unencrypted, by law.  

Starting October 1, 2013, Comcast began encrypting its clear QAM signals.  It took a lot of work, but hopefully this post will let some of you save time in finding a solution.  I ended up buying  an HD HomeRun Prime (Cablecard-based tuner) to record shows with WMC.   I paid about $130 for it and have since seen it for $100.  I did have to call Comcast, go to a Comcast office to pick up a free Cablecard (which is just a PCMCIA card that fits into the HomeRun Prime), and spend some time calling Comcast to activate the Cablecard.  I found that Comcast was actually pretty helpful, but it took quite a bit of patience to reach the right person.  However, after the initial setup problems, I am pretty happy, and back to where I used to be.  I am using the same old Windows 7 laptop to record shows in HD using Windows Media Center.  I now have three tuners instead of two.  I am still subscribed to Comcast's Limited Basic Service.  I have to admit that paying $130 for a new tuner that works with my existing Windows 7 laptop is a satisfactory solution for me.  I just wonder when the next change will occur where I will have to buy gear yet again.  

I have two blog posts on 10-18-13 that describe some technical issues with Comcast and the new setup that I encountered, along with solutions. 


Here's the older post: 

I have been able to view major network stations in glorious high-definition for a couple of years now.  These channels have been broadcast over my cable line, by Comcast.  I’ve used a Silicondust HD HomeRun dual-tuner unit to convert these channels to IP data streams that my Windows machines have been able to pick up and record using the awesome Windows Media Center.  It has been a terrific setup.  Microsoft did a splendid job with Windows Media Center, and I have a digital video recorder that resides on a Windows 7 laptop.  I have not paid any DVR rental fees and have subscribed to Comcast’s Limited Basic Service.  The HD shows were broadcast over the cable, called clear QAM.  The shows were unencrypted, by law. 

This was all good until October 1, 2013 (a few days ago).  Late in 2012, the FCC issued a ruling which allowed Comcast to encrypt clear QAM signals.  So of course, Comcast decides to encrypt its clear QAM signals. 

I’ve been scrambling since then to find a new DVR solution.  I don’t want to buy a Tivo or rent a DVR.  I just want to be able to record network programs in high-definition.  I am a sports fan (specifically, football) and record college and NFL football games for later viewing. 

There’s a full discussion of Comcast and the loss of clear QAM channels at this link:

http://www.avsforum.com/t/1475637/are-all-your-qam-channels-scrambled/180


Here are my posts, which I hope may help others in the same situation. 

I am near the SF Bay area. I also lost all clear QAM channels on October 1 (Comcast did give advance notice of this). I have a Silicondust HD Homerun that worked perfectly with my Windows 7 laptop and Windows Media Center. There's no good alternative solution since we only get CBS over the air here (and intermittently at that). So now, I have hundreds of dollars of DVR gear that no longer works.

The Comcast DTA that I got from them has an HDMI output, but it outputs standard definition -- the resulting TV picture is definitely not HD.  (correction below – the HD DTA boxes DO output HD signals, but a Comcast technician must enable this for you). 

I pay $25 per month to Comcast for Limited Basic, the price keeps going up, and they keep making changes that frustrate their customers. It's a nightmare trying to call them. Comcast probably thinks that by scrambling clear QAM channels, they will convince customers to pay more for a higher tier of cable channels. I tried one of their higher tier packages once; I had to use one of their boxes which only output SD. I would have had to pay more for HD.

I recently saw what Comcast was charging my parents, and the charges were outrageous. They charge unknowledgeable customers an HD Technology fee of $9.25 per first outlet, $10 per additional outlet to get HD, and other charges like additional outlet service and a modem rental (I can't install one of my Motorola cable modems since they have Comcast Xfinity service). Here at home in Monterey, where I keep a strict eye on my expenses, I pay $25 for Comcast Limited Basic service, and $15 for their internet service, and I use my own modem. When Comcast tries to increase my rate for internet service, I've been able to switch to AT&T DSL service, also for $15, on my landline (but they may be starting to phase that out in favor of U-Verse).

Here's the email for Comcast corporate customer service:
we_can_help@cable.comcast.com


I hope that all of us here will let Comcast know of our extreme displeasure at their policy of scrambling clear QAM channels, giving us insufficient replacements with their DTA boxes that only output SD signals, not honoring the FCC mandate that they provide customers with "a network-connected converter box that provides access to the unencrypted channels." I'd tell Comcast that you will find any possible solution to opt out of Comcast and go with another provider (satellite TV, OTA, U-Verse, internet TV, Hulu, Netflix, etc) to avoid paying Comcast more. There is no reason for Comcast to scramble clear QAM channels other than for the reason that they want to make more money from their customers.

Here's a sample letter:

Dear Comcast:
I have been a longtime Comcast customer. I am outraged that Comcast has decided to scramble the clear QAM channels in my area, which include the major networks such as FOX, ABC, CBS, and NBC. Because of this new policy, I am no longer able to view shows in high-definition, as your DTA boxes (even the ones with HDMI) only output SD signals. Moreover, it seems that Comcast is not honoring the FCC mandate that it provide customers (like me, who use IP-based Clear-QAM products) with "a network-connected converter box that provides access to the unencrypted channels." There is no reason for Comcast to scramble clear QAM channels other than for the reason that they want to make more money from their customers. I hope that Comcast provides a solution to this problem immediately; otherwise I and thousands of Comcast customers will undoubtedly find other solutions to this problem such as going with another provider or service (satellite TV, OTA, U-Verse, internet TV, Hulu, Netflix, etc). There are many other solutions out there; I just hope that Comcast will recognize this mind-blowing mistake for what it is, and avoid the loss of revenue and customers that this poor decision will cause. On my end, I hope that Comcast will contact me directly to provide an adequate solution to this problem so that I do not have to waste more time finding other services.



After I posted the above to the AVS forum, I received a question:

[quote name="JorgeA" url="/t/1475637/are-all-your-qam-channels-scrambled/150#post_23824051"]
Could you elaborate on the part about "unknowledgeable customers" getting charged an HD Technology fee of $9.25 for the first outlet and $10 per additional outlet? I'd be very happy to learn that there is some way around those fees if you want to receive HD channels on one (or more) outlets. (We do have Comcast.)

Thanks![/quote]


I wrote:
I have an update to my situation as well as an answer to the question above.  First, I am impressed by Comcast's escalated customer service.  I sent my email above to "we_can_help@cable.comcast.com" and heard back from someone on Comcast's "executive team" or something like that the next day. The person actually left a callback number and extension where I could reach her to return her phone call (something Comcast and other companies often don't do, which is ridiculously frustrating).  She actually answered the phone, so I did not have to spend the next week playing phone tag.  I repeated my email when she asked me to describe the problem (why is it that when you write a company, they always ask you to repeat yourself about six times?).  I then got her email address so that I could contact her more efficiently, which was important.  She told me that a technician would be contacting me to resolve my issues. 

I waited a day, then emailed her telling her that no one had called.  Someone did indeed call soon, and he was quite good and knowledgeable, a tech in the escalated services division called Tech Central.  He told me (and was correct) that the DTA boxes that I had, which had HDMI outputs, could indeed put out HD signals.  He needed to know the serial numbers of those boxes and the two SD DTA boxes that I had, and he had to turn on the HD channels on my Limited Basic account or something like that (needed to input high def eta code to enable HDTV channels in HD on my DTAs that have HDMI outputs).  Sure enough, I am now able to get the primary networks in HD again, albeit on channels 702-710 or so rather than channels 2,3, 4, 5 etc. 

I told him that Comcast was not in compliance with the FCC mandate that Comcast is required to provide a option for IP based tuners.  He stated that my HD Homerun box was obsolete, so Comcast would not be providing a solution for this.  He did tell me that I could go into the local Comcast office and pick up a Cablecard, which I could then put into a Cablecard-based tuner.  He stated that I would not be charged for this Cablecard and would be able to receive Limited Basic service at the same price as before, and would be able to specifically use an HD Homerun Prime (Cablecard-based tuner) to record shows with WMC.   I have a Prime on order and we will see if this tech is right.  If so, I have to admit that paying $150 for a new tuner that will work with my existing Windows 7 laptop will be a satisfactory solution for me.  I just wonder when the next change will occur where I will have to buy gear yet again. 

I did haul out an old Windows Vista machine with a built-in TV tuner that I used several years ago to record SD shows.  WMC and some forums show how to set up WMC using IR blasters to change channels on the Comcast DTA boxes.  The tech told me the following:

The DTA box with HDMI out has an RF remote and receiver that will not work with IR blasters.   The RF remote must be paired to each DTA box, will work through walls, etc.  This is the larger remote that says XR2 on it.  (But I observe that my remote has to point to the box or it will not change channels).  Therefore my HD Homerun box with WMC will not work with this DTA box, since it will not be able to change channels on the DTA box. 

The SD DTA box will work with an IR remote.  The tech says that it will NOT work with WMC but he was wrong.  In fact, I have my Windows Vista machine working and it changes channels on the SD DTA box to record shows just fine. 

The 4th DTA box that I am using, for WMC, will have a charge of $0.50 per month.  It outputs an SD signal, I can record shows from it using the built-in tuner on my HP Windows Vista machine and WMC.  But the shows are in SD and the picture quality is just awful, almost unwatchable.  It's hard to give up HD once you are used to it!

Comcast.net has the channel lineup for various packages that can be customized to your area at:
http://www.comcast.com/customers/clu/channellineup.ashx?ex=True&clu=836#

It shows that my Limited Basic package gets Discovery Channel in HD, but does not show that I get network stations (FOX, NBC, CBS, ABC) in HD.  However, if I tune the DTA to channels 702-710 where those channels are supposed to be -- I am receiving those major networks in HD.