Saturday, September 23, 2006

cut, bundled, bagged, delivered

Transferrable skills, my friend.

Our 2006-2007 season tickets for the San Jose Sharks arrived in the mail early this week.

They came in a pretty nicely designed book that had the tickets grouped into four tickets per page, perforated to hold them together. The designer used a curious alternating orange and blue color scheme to the tickets, but they were printed on a nice card stock (weight of paper... kinda like the thickness of a paperback novel cover).

Now, I share the season tickets with a couple other folks, so it keeps the cost of the season low. To divide up the games, we've used a spreadsheet in the past. This year, I created a wiki for us to use (thanks, PBWiki!) and boy did it work wonders.

After taking turns in a wicked fast wiki session over the course of a business day, we had dibs on all 44 games distributed between us.

I spent the next morning carefully separating the tickets from each other by the perf lines, then bundled them up according to the wiki results and bagged them in little ziploc sandwich bags. The plastic bags were then stuff inside business envelopes for transfer.

The next morning , when I handed the engorged business envelopes to the recipients and got money in return, it all felt so very black market. I couldn't tell if the rush was from the fantasized illicit nature of the exchange or from my realizing the first game of the season is mere weeks away. I think I'll just enjoy the rush and not dissect its source.

Go Sharks!

Friday, September 22, 2006

my technical quest

As I begin this quest, I have:
  • Toshiba 42HP66 42" plasma HDTV
  • Toshiba SDK-850 HDMI DVD player
  • Sony SAT-T60 DirecTV TiVo receiver (no HD programming)
  • Yamaha AV 5.1 receiver, model HTR-5140
  • Harman Kardon HKTS 14 6-Piece Loudspeaker System
  • Apple Mac Mini 1.66 Core Duo
  • Sony CDP-C350Z 5-disc CD player (old as the hills)
  • Apple AirPort Express
When I come out the other side of this quest, here's what I'll be looking at (and listening to) in our living room:
  • Hi Definition TV programming
  • HD DVR (TiVo, preferred)
  • Plasma TV as monitor for the Mac Mini
  • iTunes collection (40Gb) through the AV Receiver
  • HD DVD from Mac Mini to TV and 5.1 sound through AV Receiver
I'll remove from the stack of equipment the DVD and CD players (thanks to the Mac Mini).

To start things off, I've got the DVI-HDMI cable on order from to handle the Plasma-as-monitor bit.

If I'm lucky I can use my Belkin optical audio cable to run sound to the AV Receiver and remove the Toshiba DVD player from the stack right quick.

Details to be blogged mid-next week. Wish me luck.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

comcastic! indeed

I'm now into my third month of feeling Comcastic! but I don't think this is the feeling the marketers had in mind when designing the latest advertising campaign.

On July 12, I called Comcast to cancel our high-speed internet account, as we were moving to our new home in Redwood City, and I 'd tired of paying $58 a month for cable modem service and was going to try AT&T Yahoo! DSL for $20 a month at the new place (FWIW, I haven't noticed much of a difference between the two services, except the extra money in my pocket). Our scheduled cutoff date was (note the past-tense foreshadowing employed here) supposed to be July 21.

Movers packed the old house (including the cable modem) on July 19 and cleared the boxes out on July 20. The house was empty when the cable modem access was cut (again, supposedly).

All seemed fine (except for a challenge with AT&T that was quickly resolved) as we awaited the disconnection notice and final bill from Comcast.

On August 3, our final bill arrived informing us we owed a balance for the High Speed Internet (w/o Cable, own modem) service through Sept 10 (a whopping $113.90) PLUS a $99 charge for Unreturned equipment.

Beg pardon?

I called in to Comcast to dispute the bill thinking I had logic and reason on my side. Remember, per my 7/12 request, service was supposed to end July 21 and if they wanted the Comcast install disk back (the unreturned equipment in question?) I'd gladly send it back.

In speaking with the customer service rep, he was quick to admit fault for billing us after the cutoff date and agreed to reverse off the charges. However, the unreturned equipment was another matter. Evidently someone at Comcast thought I had leased one of their cable modems and had absconded with it even though I'd been paying the rate charged to those providing their own equipment for the last 35 months straight.

When I pointed this out to him, he agreed it seemed strange and referred the account to the Billing & Account Research team to resolve. I gave him my cell number to call to follow up since we'd disconnected (without forwarding) our old number, the one listed on the account, when we moved out.

The following Monday, (August 7 for those of you following along) I got a call from someone at Comcast asking if I had a copy of the receipt for the modem I "bought" and had used for three years to access the internet via Comcast. I stifled a laugh (so I thought) while denying I'd been so thorough as to keep a receipt for this legacy equipment purchased so long ago. "OK. We'll have to keep researching and get back to you," was the dismissal on that call and I thought things might resolve themselves shortly.

No word from Comcast for 10 days, until...

I arrived home from work on August 17 to find a PAST DUE - PLEASE PAY notice from Comcast forwarded from our old address. The good: they'd reversed off the charge for unused internet access, but the $99 unreturned equipment charge was still there.

I called up Comcast Customer Service (1-800-945-2288) and spoke with Marquita who looked over the notes from the previous calls, saw that the Accounts Research team had found in my favor (the modem was mine, by golly!) and they'd just failed to reverse off the $99 charge. I asked that she please send me a clean bill (showing all I owed was the pro-rated $18.38 access fee), and she assured me it would get sent out in the next billing cycle. At the end of the call, I took the automated survey and gave Marquita high marks for satisfying my needs and delivering outstanding customer service.

I should have waited.

Flash forward to my mailbox on September 16 wherein I find a notice from a Collection Agency that they have now been given the task by Comcast to collect a seriously past due amount of $18.38, and won't I please remit payment as soon as I am able.

What the fuck?

I call Comcast and work my way up the supervisor chain (on a Saturday evening) until I reach supervisor "Faye" and explain my concern: I've been a model customer to Comcast for three years, paying on time (and sometimes early but never late) my cable bill to the tune of $1800 over those three years. Now that I'm no longer a customer, I've been sent to a collections agency for an $18.38 charge that is thanks to an accounting/paperwork problem already determined to be their fault. I refuse to let my good credit get dinged by Comcast's ineptitude. Faye tells me they tried to contact me several times but the number was disconnected. I remind her they have my cell number on file (remember the call back in early August?) as well as my email address (remember where all the electronic notices of my electronic bill being due were sent?) and they couldn't get a hold of me to tell me they were sending me to collections? And by the way, where was that clean bill that Marquita promised? If she'd told me it'd come via collections, I'd have politely declined.

After 35 minutes of hold music peppered by Faye reporting back the status of her conferring with the others working a Saturday night in Comcast Customer Service (in Concord, CA), I conclude the call smiling now that Faye has taken down two phone numbers I know work PLUS my email address. She's even recommended that the balance be adjusted off given the challenge I've had resolving the issue. I ask when I'll hear back from the Accounts Research Team that the bill is resolved and she assures me they'll call in the next few days. I take Comcast's "short survey on customer satisfaction" at the conclusion of the call and when asked if Customer Service had taken care of my needs, I reply with a premature YES.

Silly man I am.

Wednesday night comes, and I've yet to hear from anyone at Comcast. I decide not to wait for them this time and call in to customer service again. This time I speak with Miguel. After briefly explaining why I'm calling (I was expecting to hear from you by now!), he asks for a moment to read the notes on my account.

"It appears you owe us $18.38, sir." Ah, thanks, Faye.

I ask if there's record of Faye's submitting the account for review. Yes, he's looking at the form in front of him on the screen. Is there record of her requesting the outstanding balance be adjusted off? Nothing of the sort is anywhere on the form. She'd lied to me, and I'd been dumb enough to give her high remarks on her performance (= ability to deceive).

I'm at wits end and I ask Miguel to tell it to me straight:
  • "Has my account gone to collections?" Yes
  • "Has this action been reported to the credit bureaus yet so that it'd impact my credit score?" No
  • "If I simply pay the outstanding balance, will this all go away?" It should, but keep a record of your payment.
I'm ready to throw in the towel and just pay the collections notice to get it all overwith. I thank Miguel for his time and hang up, avoiding the offer to take the customer service satisfaction survey.

Instead of calling the collections group, I try to pay my balance online. When I try to sign in, the error message informs me my account has been uncoupled from my user ID on file. When I try to recouple them (by supplying the account number and phone number of our old place), I'm informed I need to call 1-800-COMCAST to do so.

I close the browser window and fight the urge to kick the dog.

Now, I've taken on these big companies before and won. I have a refund check for $0.02 from Chevy Chase Bank still waiting to be framed. Simply paying off the Comcast account feels like a loss at this point... as it won't provide any record of the hours I've now spent trying to get them to fix the damn problem THEY started.

What to do, what to do.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

how does your wikipedia grow?

Great to see the research being done to show how content is added to Wikipedia. Contrary to popular belief (based on analyzing the edits logs to gauge content creation), it's the outsider/one-timers who add the new content and the editors who make it encyclopedia-worthy (via lots and lots of edits).

When you put it all together, the story become clear: an outsider makes one edit to add a chunk of information, then insiders make several edits tweaking and reformatting it. In addition, insiders rack up thousands of edits doing things like changing the name of a category across the entire site -- the kind of thing only insiders deeply care about. As a result, insiders account for the vast majority of the edits. But it's the outsiders who provide nearly all of the content.

And when you think about it, this makes perfect sense. Writing an encyclopedia is hard. To do anywhere near a decent job, you have to know a great deal of information about an incredibly wide variety of subjects. Writing so much text is difficult, but doing all the background research seems impossible.

On the other hand, everyone has a bunch of obscure things that, for one reason or another, they've come to know well. So they share them, clicking the edit link and adding a paragraph or two to Wikipedia. At the same time, a small number of people have become particularly involved in Wikipedia itself, learning its policies and special syntax, and spending their time tweaking the contributions of everybody else.

Other encyclopedias work similarly, just on a much smaller scale: a large group of people write articles on topics they know well, while a small staff formats them into a single work. This second group is clearly very important -- it's thanks to them encyclopedias have a consistent look and tone -- but it's a severe exaggeration to say that they wrote the encyclopedia. One imagines the people running Britannica worry more about their contributors than their formatters.