Monday, February 26, 2007

nine lessons on surviving winter travel to boston

This weekend was a real lesson for me regarding air travel in the wintertime and how I might do better in my next booking. At least, as long as I'm flying United Airlines, my carrier of choice.

I was supposed to arrive back to San Francisco on Sunday at 2:30pm on a direct flight from Boston. Instead, I arrived a few hours ago, at 2:30pm Monday on a delayed connecting flight from Boston by way of LAX. Yes, I was 24 hours late, but I'm a lot wiser for it. Here's what I learned:

Lesson One: Book the earliest nonstop flight you can
Instead of taking flight 171 (6:25a) or even flight 173 (8:00a) nonstop flight from Boston to SFO, I chose flight 177, the 11:04a departure which left ample room for "weather-relatd equipment problems" to delay my getting out of Boston's Logan airport even though the sky was clear and sunny in Boston.

Lesson Two: Subscribe to United's EasyUpdate flight notification system
I've signed up to receive text messages to my phone with any/all updates on delays and gate changes and upgrades! :-) and United seems to get these text messages out even before updating the web-based Flight Status tool. Starting at 6:09a on Sunday, I started getting updates that my flight departure was delayed which allowed me to hang out at the hotel longer instead of getting the bad news upon arrival at the airport.

Lesson Three: When the electronic check-in kiosk asks if you'd like to change flights, think long and hard before saying no.
When I arrived at Logan airport and used the kiosk to check in, knowing I was still two hours early for my flight that'd been delayed three hours already, I thought it a little odd when the machine asked if I wanted to change flights. Silly me, I put faith in "the system" that flight 177 would make it out of Boston some time that day. Those who chose to reschedule likely made it out on a later "regularly scheduled flight" while I got bumped to the next day.

Lesson Four: When the gate agent starts sharing how he's horse-trading to get equipment assigned to your flight, it's time to rebook.
Once the agent informed us the original equipment never made it out of Chicago (snow) and the replacement plane was stuck in Dulles (snow and sleet) so a third plane due in from LA was to be ours, resulting in a now 5:45pm departure, I should have taken it as a sign to rebook. Our agent was Mr. Merry Sunshine at 5pm as his shift ended and he strolled through the terminal at the end of a long day. The new crew coming in waited until 5:30pm, as we passengers were queued up to start boarding to cancel the flight because the crew was now "illegal" (had worked too many hours to staff our flight cross-country).

Lesson Five: The moment you see the flight is canceled, RUN, don't walk, to the ticket counter by the curb.
Sure, there's a customer service desk or two inside the terminal (once you've passed through security), but your odds of getting to an agent are much better if you just go back out to the agents by the curb and queue up. I got funny looks from all the folks queued up to deal with the inside-the-terminal-yet-very-haggard-looking agent. When they joined me out by the curb, I got a bunch of "lucky bastard" head nods as they went to the waaay back of the queue having been booted out to where I was.

Lesson Six: If you're in line at the ticket counter, don't bother to call the airline hoping to jump the line.
Every single person around me that was able (after multiple tries) to get a customer service agent on the phone was told the exact same thing: stay in line, the agent in the same physical space as you will be able to help you better. Makes sense if you think about it: with a big weather event, you've got lots of people in lots of airports flooding the phone-based customer service resources.

Lesson Seven: Chill.
Adopt a Zen attitude about the whole situation, no matter how nasty it's been to your plans, and do not jump aboard the "you don't know the day I've had" bitch bus. I do know how your day has been. I've been watching you complain to everyone sitting around you and a series of someones on your cell phone all day long. Take it quietly and respectfully like a man (or woman). No matter how much you want to believe the airline had it in for you from the start, I'll bet they were doing everything they could to get you home and only gave up when the last reasonable possibility was exhausted.

Lesson Eight: Be nice to the airline agents.
You know everyone else has been extracting pounds of flesh from them all day long as we've been stuck in the terminal with each other. Be the compassionate one.

The exact words of a purple-faced guy at the ticket counter next to me. "I've been stuck in this airport all day and I want to get home NOW! You better get ME home now! I want on the next flight out of here or so help me..." My agent and I exchanged a shocked look, and this is what I said to her "I can only begin to imagine the day you've had. Can you help me get to San Francisco?" As suspected, there was nothing available leaving that night, but she put me on the next flight not routing through a snowy section of the country (thru LAX) and on which she could confirm seats and she even tossed in a complimentary upgrade. Which leads me to the final lesson:

Lesson Nine: A seat in hand is better than two standbys.
No matter how tempting it is to try to get on a flight that'll arrive 30 minutes earlier than the one you've got a confirmed seat on, don't do it. I almost let a fellow traveler convince me to wait for the 8am nonstop flight out of Boston that was scheduled to land two hours before my two-leg trip through LAX. Thankfully I did not. I kept my aisle seats in Economy Plus as I watched all the snow coming down in Boston and covering up everything. Given how much time it took as my on-time departure plane was deiced on the tarmac, I wasn't too surprised when the several-hour-delayed Boston folks arrived at SFO the same time I made it from LAX.

Fingers crossed there are no weather impacts when I get back on a plane next Tuesday to Stockholm.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

marriott ibahn(tm) billing trickery

If you're thinking of using Marriott Hotel's iBAHN High-Speed Internet Access, make sure you read the fine print when signing up for the service.

When you first log in, you're informed that you'll be charged for access for each day of your stay. If you'd like to get access for anything less than the duration of your stay, you have to contact the front desk to get the billing work-around.

While I needed access for my whole stay this time, I wasn't bothered by the "convenience." However, I think they could make the notice a whole lot more conspicuous than they do for those who don't bother to read the fine print.

I wonder how many folks call for a bill adjustment at the end of their stay due to this?

Saturday, February 24, 2007

a vision of the new democracy?

At Beyond Broadcast 2007, Henry Jenkins shared this funny Ask a Ninja clip wherein the ninja explains the difficult concepts behind net neutrality using pop culture references and makes the concept quite accessible.

Keeping in mind the ideals of a progressive popular culture (participatory, active, open-ended, transparent and transformative), this quick hit, peer-distributed messaging is quite compelling as fodder for a new participatory democracy.

Is this how campaigning and issues will be discussed in a new participatory democracy? It wouldn't be so bad. Perhaps we should ask a ninja.

UPDATE: And here, courtesy boingboing is yet another cool Net Neutrality video.

compromise culture? notes from beyond broadcast 2007

Henry Jenkins, author of Convergence Culture, opened up the Beyond Broadcast conference here at MIT with a quick spin through the implications and possibilities of participatory culture and democracy.

One of Jenkins's slides including this compelling quote from Robert Fritz:
"If you limit your choices only to what seems possible or reasonable, you disconnect from what you truly want, and all that is left is to compromise."
As John Maloney has helped remind me recently: we've got to keep the values of the group, the "what the group truly wants," in mind first and use that value to find the technology or let the group itself find the right tools only after that'll support those values.

This values-first thinking is counter to the way I see most groups attacking the communication challenge to grow bigger than the geography they're bound by.

Typically, the communications tools and platforms that are widely available are those that have scaled up enough (and therefore have generally been watered down enough) to pander to a critical mass. The platform/tool creators, in their quest to build a platform that'll be as useful as possible to as many people as possible, necessarily bake in compromises during the development process.

It seems then that the users are forced to compromise at the get-go and the barrier is way high to keep the users as a group from really achieving what they truly want.

Does a group even realize the kind of trade-off they're making when they pick a tool to digitize their work under the auspices of "greater reach" than the people in the room at the time? I think they don't, and that's got to change.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

more directv hr20 dvr bugs

Overnight on February 10, my DirecTV HR20 HD DVR got yet another software upgrade. This marks the tenth upgrade since I purchased the unit last Fall, and this latest upgrade, to version 0x12a, seems to have fixed some bugs while introducing still others.

What's been fixed?
  • It's been a couple weeks since I've dealt with the "Instant Keep or Delete" (IKD) bug
  • I haven't had any black screens of death necessitating a hard resets to free the system up
  • the remote has been working without fail
What's still buggy?
  • The disk space bar in My Playlist still doesn't reflect anywhere close to reality, and I think shows are getting deleted earlier than they otherwise should. Comparing unwatched to watched shows in My Playlist, the proportion is nowhere near what the indicator shows. While I can't prove it to DirecTV's tech folks, I think there's still hard drive space taken up by all those IKD shows I could never watch. Not a big deal? When these inaccessible shows are reducing the amount of space I have for shows I can access, that's a big deal. It's like telling me the DVR has a 200 hours of capacity but only letting me use 120 hours of it. Yes, this is a bug.
What's new?
  • Any show I've set to record as a series (each episode each week is recorded automatically) shows up as expected in My Playlist, BUT, when I go to watch an episode, it starts playing at the one minute mark of the show. It records the whole show, mind you, but I have to rewind to get to the beginning.
I'm coming up on six months owning the HR20, and I still have the feeling the development team released this thing too early. Kudos to them for continuing to squash bugs, but I'm still less than satisfied with my overall experience as an owner.

I had a standard definition TiVo DVR for five years and never once had a technical issue with it. An unfair comparison between the two? No. It's my real-world comparison of what it's like to time-shift television programming across two different DVRs. As a consumer, I don't care how much more difficult it is to manage HD signals than SD signals. As a consumer, I want to be able to select the shows I want recorded, find them in the playlist after they've recorded and play them when I want, starting at the beginning of the show.

Hopefully the tech team has this same expectation in mind as they continue their two-steps-forward-one-step-back lurching toward a solid product. Keep the IKD bug at bay, and I'll be patient.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

fresh eggs everyday? yum

This morning's Mercury News had a column about urban chicken farming, and when Mel first mentioned it (she got to that section of the paper first), I quickly dismissed the idea and then back to reading about why my beloved Sharks have been unable to score a goal for over two games in a row now.

When I finally got to the Business section myself, suddenly the idea of raising a couple chickens in our backyard was really appealing. Thanks to our participating in a CSA back in Virginia, we'd had the pleasure of tasting fresh eggs, and believe me, once you have fresh eggs, you can only tolerate the styrofoam-packaged things they sell at the supermarket by the dozen (or gross by the gross, if you're shopping at Costco).

Besides the tempting oddity of having a couple cute cluckers inhabiting the back 40, raising our own egg-makers would be yet another green thing we, as a family, can do. As a bonus, the local zoning laws allow us to keep as many as three chickens here at the house.

A couple hours research on the web has led me to the following decent resources (a lot of not-so-useful stuff is out there):
But, I think I struck gold when I discovered Omlet's eglu chicken coop.

High tech meets high design meets urban living. It's all I can do not to order one today.

Instead, I've ordered Barbara Kilarski's Keep Chickens to study up a bit more before diving in with living, eating, scratching, pooping egg-makers in the backyard.

I've got preliminary buy in from Melanie (with certain agreements to do other outside chores as a condition). I'll keep you posted on my progress.

fan control on a macbook pro running hot

Like many folks who use a MacBook Pro, the tops of my thighs have been scorched several times due to how frickin' hot the thing gets.

I used to have a 12" PowerBook (RIP) before this, and it got hot, too, but I swear I could fry eggs on the MBP. I'm rather careful to keep the airflow as robust as possible around the MBP, but it doesn't really seem to help to have it on a glass tabletop versus on my denim-clad lap. Either way, it's a furnace.

In search of something, anything, that might help cool down the MacBookPro, I came across the smcFanControl app that allows you to manually program the MBP's two fans to run at a higher active speed than they normally would.

As a bonus, it's got a built in thermometer to show you how hot the core is running. (should I be worried that my core readings have been as warm as 185 degrees F? if not, why not?)

So as not to void the warranty, you can't set the fans to run any slower than the factory default setting, but you can set them to run as high as 6000 rpm.

I've got my minimum fan speed currently set to 3500 rpm, and that seems to be doing the trick of keeping the core reading at right around 120 degrees F (room temp is 73 as I type).

I've installed smcFanControl on my Mac Mini as well, given the fact it's stored in the entertainment cabinet alongside those two furnaces otherwise known as the DirecTV HR20 HD DVR and the Harman Kardon AVR245.

In all, I'm very pleased with this handy little fan control app for the Mac.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

how to enable 5.1 sound output from a Mac Mini

As blogged ten days ago, I've been having troubles getting my new Harman Kardon AVR245 seamlessly integrated into my entertainment system.

My challenges included not being able to get a true digital output from my Mac Mini due to the optical cable (S/PDIF) plug incompatibility, not getting the Mac Mini to actually stream 6 channels of sound through the digital output nor being able to use the AVR 245's integrated HDMI switcher.

After a couple hours trouble-shooting today, I've got the system up and running with 5.1 outputs and integrated switching between the Mac Mini's HDMI out and the DirecTV HR20 HDMI out.

Here's what it took:
  • Mac Mini digital output: the jack for Headphones/Audio out/Optical out on the back of the Mini is designed to accommodate a mini-headphone plug. If you think you can buy a standard S/PDIF optical cable to hook your Mini to your receiver, think again. You have to buy a separate adapter that'll convert the TOS plug to a minijack-compatible plug. Of course, Apple has a Belkin optical cable kit that has the adapter and will set you back $30 (and takes 5-7 weeks to ship as of this writing), but if you've already got an optical cable, why buy a whole new optical kit? You can hop over to Amazon and spend $1.65 (plus shipping) to buy a perfectly good TOSlink to optical mini adapter. Takes a couple days to get to you, but good luck finding the adapters stocked in a local electronics store (like Fry's). I checked several places and found I'd need to buy a whole "kit" just like the Apple online store is pushing. Adapter in hand, the Mac Mini now has an optical connection to the AVR 245.
  • Mac Mini streaming 5.1 sound: I thought once I'd bridged the Mac Mini to the AVR 245 with an optical cable, I'd automagically get 5.1 sound from the DVDs I play on the Mac. Nope. It took a little digging but I found out how to coax 5.1 sound out of the Mini's DVD player (thanks to Dave's recent post on This Much I Know and related Apple Help docs). The default stream is a two channel stream from the Mini. To turn on 5.1 audio in Apple's DVD player, Choose DVD Player > Preferences, and then click Disc Setup. At the bottom of that window, change the Audio output setting to "digital out" and (very important) check the box next to "Disable Dolby dynamic range compression." Voila! Your DVD's 5.1 sound is now streaming out of your Mac Mini. This change to preferences applies to the MacBook, MacBook Pro and iMac, as well if you're using any of them as your DVD player for your TV.
  • Integrated HDMI switching via the AVR 245: I'd previously thought that the AVR 245 was hard-wired to match an optical coax and an optical TOSlink to each of the two HDMI inputs. After digging a little deeper into the hundred page User Guide for the receiver, I discovered that I could override these default settings and match each of the HDMI video inputs to one the two optical sound inputs. Why does this make me happy? I can now get rid of the analog push-button HDMI switcher I'd been using to toggle video feeds to our HD TV from the HR20 DVR to the Mac Mini. I can now sit comfortably on the couch and use the Harman Kardon's remote to switch back and forth at the push of a button.
Next stop: 7.1 sound, but that'll mean adding more components to my A/V stack, and I've grown fond of the clean four-piece look we've got going now (HD TV, Mac Mini, AVR and HR20 HD DVR).