Archive for November, 2009

Anecdotes from Comcast’s mostly-digital transition

Thursday, November 19th, 2009

Comcast is switching most of its markets to “mostly” digital signaling.  That is, they’re switching many of the channels that they used to carry via analog (including ESPN, Comedy Central, A&E, and the like — what they dub “expanded basic”) to digital.  This means that if you used to watch these channels with your old (NTSC-tuning) TV or VCR, you need to get a converter box.  Comcast is ostensibly doing this because converting to digital frees up a lot of spectrum on their broadcast medium to send more bandwidth-intensive media (read:  HDTV and higher-speed networking).  However, they’re also insisting that they “must” encrypt heretofore unencrypted channels because their “contract” requires them to.  This makes no sense.  If their contract requires them to encrypt or scramble channels that they’ve never encrypted or scrambled before, haven’t they been breaking the contract?  This smells made-up to me.  Their contradictory explanations are available in their FAQ.

So why do I care?  Well, I’d rather not have to get a digital box if I don’t have to.  Decoding digital cable and unencrypting digital cable are two separate things, and with this move, Comcast is (yet again) attempting to conflate them.  (Tivos & Cable-company cable boxes do both).  Many HDTVs, including the small Samsung one that I just wall-mounted in my kitchen, include so-called “unencrypted digital cable” (clear-QAM) tuners.  In cases like that, where is a person supposed to even put a box?  (I’d probably have to build a shelf above the TV).  Clear-QAM tuners are especially useful for watching broadcast HD channels via cable (as in my area, where antenna reception is terrible), since FCC regulations require cable companies to send anything that they receive via antenna in unencrypted form over cable.  But expanded-basic is technically exempt from such regulations.  Technically, Comcast probably can do what they’re doing.  (They’ve advertised quite recently that they “don’t charge extra” for additional TVs and even boasted about not needing additional hardware during the digital-over-the-air transition.  This move could be interpreted as invalidating those claims).  But why require the box?  According to their FAQ, they do require a box for expanded basic, even for TVs that have clear-QAM tuners.  They go on to outline an inelegant kludge to watch expanded basic and broadcast-HD using a splitter and switch.  But they also say that each house qualifies for up to three free expanded-basic converter boxes if you pay for expanded-basic coverage.  (This is probably to cover their asses with regard to previous sales claims that there weren’t additional fees to watch those channels).  So, it actually costs them money to ship out a box to me that I don’t want and don’t need, and which doesn’t actually seem required by their content contracts (or else it would’ve already been scrambled).  WTF is going on?

Well, in the Cambridge (Boston) area, Comcast switched to digital this week.  I reprogrammed the TV in my office’s gym, which features a clear-QAM tuner, just out of curiosity.  Lo and behold, expanded basic is in fact being broadcast in the clear — no box is actually required.  Granted, this is not a supported way to watch the channels & it could disappear at any time, but I’ll ride this out for as long as I can.

I think that this could be temporary.  First, to keep costs down, Comcast’s “free” expanded-basic converter boxes perhaps don’t do encryption, or if they do, it’s integrated.  However, the FCC requires separable security (cablecards) in hardware that the cable companies deploy so as to force standardization of the security technology, which does raise the price slightly.  Though Comcast can (and has, in some markets) apply for a waiver for low-cost boxes like this, they probably hedged their bets & went with the lowest-cost, safest solution:  a clear-qam decoder.  However, this probably is a temporary situation.  It could also be that the encryption is disabled in the boxes that Comcast is distributing (they usually are remotely addressable) pending the outcome of application for FCC waivers in most markets.  (I’m not sure what the status of that is here in the Boston area). If such waivers come through and if the boxes being distributed actually do have integrated encryption capabilities, Comcast could simply switch it on, thus killing the clear-QAM expanded basic in one fell swoop.  From their FAQ, that does appear their long term plan.  If/when that happens, and if Verizon FIOS doesn’t come to my area first, I’ll just get another Tivo.  (The Comcast SD-only expanded-basic boxes are inelegant kludge — if I have to install a box for my other TVs, it’s going to be a good box that can do stuff like play video and audio from my computers, and stream Netflix).  It’ll be a cold day in hell when I pay Comcast for the “benefit” of their crappy hardware.  I don’t mind paying for something when I get a valuable product or service in return, but I surely do mind paying more for the same thing for no discernable reason.

The unfriendly skies

Tuesday, November 3rd, 2009

I’ve long hated Southwest Airlines.  To me, their benefits begin & end with “cheap”.  And, IMO, you get what you pay for.  But, I very much value customer service, and Southwest’s has long been questionable at best.  I don’t appreciate their “quirky” flight attendants who think it’s appropriate to make “humorous” comments through safety announcements.  Their employees project an image of non-professionalism.  (I don’t want a flight attendant to be my buddy or to hear him or her try out their tired stand-up routine — I want them to be a competent safety officer at 30,000 feet who also can politely serve drinks when safe).  I get that Southwest is a “self serve” airline, but they’re also callous assholes from time to time.  (The veneer of “buddy” wears off when you actually need someone to answer a nontrivial question or actually help in a competent and efficient manner).

This is especially true with regard to their policies regarding parents and children.  I get that first-come/first-served seating is their policy, but this is problematic when you match it with their “family boarding is after the first group of 60” policy.  Good luck seating a family together after 60 people have already gotten on the plane.  If people were willing to change seats (normally I don’t favor this, but on Southwest with their idiotic family policies, it’s necessary), that wouldn’t actually be a problem.  But, that gets to my point:  people are self-righteous, selfish assholes, especially when it comes to flying, and especially when it comes to parenting.  Mix the two, and it’s like the perfect storm of assholery and hostility.

Recently, Southwest tossed a lady & her 2 year old son off a plane when the child was basically screaming “GO PLANE GO!” during safety announcements.  First of all, this is the first I’ve ever heard of Southwest actually taking these announcements so seriously.  And if the mother really wasn’t even trying to quiet her son during announcements, then this might actually be warranted.  Maybe that happened — it’s not clear from the news.  But having traveled with an infant (and later, when he’s grown into a toddler), I kind of doubt that’s what happened.  More likely, the child was being difficult, and the other passengers got involved.  Here’s a note to all you jackass passengers out there who can’t tolerate an annoying child on your flight:  we see your eye-rolls, we notice when you cut in front of us, we hear your “clever” self-righteous comments to other passengers about how we should stay at home, and we definitely notice when you talk to a flight attendant, and the flight attendant turns to talk to us.  I’ve been there, trying my damndest to calm my son.  I get that flight attendants don’t want to hear a noisy child during a flight, and I’m willing to bet that they basically used the security-announcement issue as a pretense to boot the child & his mother.  After flying cross-country with a child for numerous reasons (mostly to facilitate my wife being able to attend meetings with her Doctoral committee, when our son was still very young), I’ve seen a lot of this.  I’m also an experienced flyer — I had over 32,000 miles flying in 2008.  So, I know the ins & outs involved.  (Thankfully only one flight was on Southwest).  So to all of you jackass people who have 2 cents of commentary for us parents, looking down your noses at us, I have a few responses to the many criticisms I’ve endured from you.

Q) I expect to fly in absolute tranquility and peace.  Can’t you control your child?

A) I’m trying.  Really, I am.  But children are not full-grown adults.  It’s unreasonable to think that they process information (or consequences) the same way that adults do (or should).  But more to the point, I have a question for you:  Who the fuck do you think you are?  Yes, really.  I think this entire situation could be alleviated if you would just mind your own fucking business.  If my son is climbing on your or kicking you, you may have a point.  But noise-wise, kids are noisy.  They just are.  And short of sedating him, which I’m not going to do so that you can enjoy your fucking iPod or newspaper, he might have a bad day.  He might be teething and unconsolable.  But regardless, you should just mind your own fucking business and leave me and my family alone.

Q) If you can’t keep your kids quiet, can’t you just stay at home?

A) Who the fuck do you think you are?  In short, no, I usually can’t.  If you think this whole traveling-with-an-infant/toddler thing is something I enjoy, you’re batshit insane.  Yes, I’d avoid it whenever I could.  But the truth is, you wouldn’t propose that if you actually thought any of this through or had basic non-sociopathic capabilities to understand other humans’ experiences and points of view.  Instead, you are completely consumed with yourself, to the point that you actually have the balls to make demands on my parenting method to suit your superficial bullshit needs.  I get that you might be going to be an important sales meeting, and you need to concentrate.  Guess what?  I might be going to something important, too!  You also might be going to bang your mistress, but that doesn’t give me the right to question your motives or demand that you make concessions to me because I think your flight is “less important”.  And if flying when there are fewer kids onboard is so important, I strongly suggest you buy a ticket during business-hours routes.  These are on weekdays during business hours.  Kids fly with their parents on weekends, typically.  I know.  I fly a lot.  But really, you should be able to fly whenever you want — just like my family and I can..

Q) Don’t you think you’re harming/abusing/hurting your child by forcing them on a flight?  Obviously they’re unhappy!

A) Fuck you.  This is obviously a passive-aggressive way of projecting your unhappiness with the presence of inconvenient, annoyed children on “your” flight (also known as my flight, also known as our flight).  If I thought this was actually harmful, I wouldn’t be doing it myself.  It’s not harmful — it’s inconvenient.  And inconvenience is not “abuse”, to you, or to my child, despite your eye-rolls and frantic pleas to the flight attendant.  Yet again, let me offer this helpful advice:  mind your own fucking business.

Q) Why won’t you just discipline your child?  That will make him stop!

A) Clearly you are not a parent of a toddler.  I can distract/feed/soothe/scold my son, and it’ll usually work.  But very young (less-than-2) year old kids simply cannot process personal consequences.  They don’t even understand their OWN personhood until they’re 2, and even then, they only understand THEMSELVES (which does offer some limited opportunities for disciplining).  Even if you were a parent, though, I reserve the right to ignore any and all “advice” offered by total strangers who are attempting to manipulate me so that they can get maximum enjoyment out of a flight that my family and I are equally entitled to.  I suggest you ignore me, as well, and we’ll all get along better.  If, by the way, you’re suggesting that I spank my son, I’ll agree to this as soon as I also get the right to punch the various fucking assholes who make my flight less enjoyable, including the jerks who board out-of-turn, who violate carryon rules with impunity, or who rise to the level of the mild annoyance of my son (including talking on the phone).  No?  I’m not allowed to do that?  Then what the fuck makes you feel justified in suggesting that I should do that to my child?

Q) Parents like you who worship your children are what’s wrong with America today!  Don’t you see how you’re spoiling your child?

A) I don’t worship my kid.  I love him and treat him in the manner I think is best.  That’s a personal family decision for me and my family, and despite the fact that we’re crammed into a metal tube at 30,000 feet, you need to butt the fuck out.  I don’t give a shit about your various shortcomings as person, including your compulsive need to interject yourself into my personal affairs.  I’m doing my best to ignore them and you.  That’s all I’m asking for from you.

droid does?

Monday, November 2nd, 2009

Verizon has been pitching their upcoming new consumer smartphone (the Droid) pretty aggressively (bonus points for using hipster douche background music in the spot). I’m currently out of contract on my verizon phone and am looking to upgrade, but verizon’s offerings are notoriously lacking. I have no interest in either a Windows mobile device nor a blackberry. I want something whose interface and usability is on par with my iPod touch, but AT&T is a non-starter for me (bad reception near my house on the South Shore) so I won’t be getting an iPhone.

Unfortunately, it looks like I’ll have to keep waiting. After carefully following the reviews for Verizon’s new Android phones (including the Motorola Droid and the HTC Eris), there are some fatal flaws (for me) in the lineup. The Droid has one of the ugliest, unusually shaped qwerty keyboards I’ve ever seen, and it’s got that curious directional pad off to the side. Well, it turns out that there’s a good reason the Droid has that screwball d-pad: the Droid doesn’t do multitouch input (pinch to precisely zoom out, expand to zoom in, etc). Apparently both the phone and the Android 2.0 software claim to support it, but it’s not enabled on the Droid. So either the support is bad/buggy/incomplete for the Droid’s higher resolution display, or Motorola fears Apple’s patent wrath (in a way that Palm doesn’t because of either cross-licensing or Mutually Assured Destruction from Palm’s own smartphone patent portfolio). With regard to the Eris, this is the hardware for the HTC Hero, which was universally received as underpowered. It also doesn’t run Android 2.0, which I’d want for integrated Exchange support.

Anyway, it looks like I’ll be waiting for another Android 2.0 device, the Palm Pre on Verizon, or a Verizon iPhone. Weak.