Sunday, July 30, 2017

Adventures In Getting On-Line

It's been almost twenty years since the first time I purchased a device to go on-line. I bought what was then called a Web-TV unit. This was a unit that connected to a television, when you first powered it up, you received instructions on how to subscribe for monthly service. The unit was originally a joint venture between the Diba Corporation and Zenith; Microsoft bought the rights to it in 1997 when it was about a year old.

It was a very basic web browser that was reliable. Units originally came with just a hand-held remote. I used mine for literally one day before giving up and going back to Wal-Mart to buy a wireless keyboard.

Microsoft, it must be said, really did a lot to improve things as the years went by.  They paid for their users to have access to the chat rooms at Talk City. I'm eternally grateful for that, because I met my late wife in one of those chat rooms.

They upgraded the design of the unit. They developed a second design, Web-TV Plus, that had picture-in-picture technology. You could read your e-mail (Hotmail was the default provider) or look at a web page and watch television at the same time.

My mom's first attempts at getting on-line came with the unit she bought on my recommendation and she was still using it when Microsoft ended the service in 2013.

The way we connect has changed a lot, of course, through the years. Dial-up service over land lines was once the only way to do things. America On Line was once a thriving company, but today they're a shell of what they once were.

The most rock solid connections I've ever had were with Time Warner Cable, using the cable line, and Verizon with their FIOS service. Both were reasonably priced and aside from a few glitches with the FIOS early on, I never had a single loss of service in a combined seven years of using the two services.

Here at the Binghamton Y.M.C.A. the agency has contracted with Spectrum for television, Internet and home phone services.  The only problem is, the building was constructed in the early 1970s and the fourth floor is not suitable to be wired up for those services.

When I was here before, that contract did not as yet exist. Had I been able to get back into the room I had before, I might have been able to use the existing set up that I had installed in 2012.

But I'm down the hall from that room now. I did ask for a waiver but was denied one.

So, for about the first week, I used the free wi-fi offered in the downtown area.  This is something that the city offers as they paid a local company to set things up and pay them to maintain the network.

Unfortunately, the network has not been well maintained. Both connection speeds and reliability range from a little above average to really bad, depending on time of day. Obviously, there are more of us using the network at say, ten in the morning, as opposed to midnight.

To recap:

1- No ability to sign up for and use the cable company's services.

2- No ability to sign up for Verizon's FIOS service.

3- Free, but very hit or miss, service provided by the city.

So, after that first week, I had had enough. I bought a modem and signed up for service through Freedom Pop. This is wi-fi that uses the Sprint 3G and 4G networks.

The service is good, when it works. I once had a three day service outage, for which my account was credited. When I say the service is good, I'm talking about the connection's reliability along with download and upload speeds as well.

However, their customer service is very, very bad. When I first placed my order, I was asked if I wanted a second modem. No cost for this, other than shipping charges. I declined the offer. Sure enough, a few days later, two packages arrive, each with a modem. I wound up having to threaten to dispute the shipping charge with my credit union before that amount was credited back to my account.

As it turns out, getting two modems was a good thing because the first time I dropped modem #1, it stopped working. Modem #2 was pressed into service and was fine, until yesterday (more on that, in a little while).

Using modem #2 with the account for modem #1 was no problem. I called and explained what I was doing and was told that everything was just fine and dandy. Two weeks later, they billed me for a second account. They said I had authorized that second account and that the first modem was shown as being in use at a second location. They had the nerve to tell me that they knew I had given the first modem to someone else to use.

I had done no such thing. Again, I had to use the threat of getting my credit union involved before the agent I was dealing with decided to credit back my money.

Also, I should mention before I forget, is the fact that initially, they were suspending my service when I reached 90% of my data usage. They said this was to prevent me from incurring charges for data used once I got to 100%. I read them the proverbial riot act and got the level  for suspension changed to 99%.

Still with me? Good, because we're almost finished.

Two days ago, I was reading an article in which I learned of the existence of a similar service that Verizon offers. I decided that I would call and inquire about it on Monday. Yesterday, however, the modem stopped working twice. Both times I had to pull up the diagnostics page, and restore the modem to factory settings.

After the first time, I went to the Freedom Pop website, to let them know the modem is going bad after just three months. I decided, "as long as I'm here, let me check my data usage".

I'm glad I did. Because I also checked my billing. When I did, I discovered that they had billed me $5 for goodness knows what, on my debit card. Then I saw they had billed me for my monthly service when I already paid for it this month.

And just to make things interesting, they billed it to my credit card. Which is the card I had used to order the modem. I made the change to using my debit card for monthly service billing and never changed it back.

So, as they say, long story, short, I signed up with Verizon for their service yesterday. The modem will ship on Monday and arrive on Wednesday. I have been paying Freedom Pop $79.99 a month for 10 giga-bytes of data (I listen to a lot of on-line radio).

The three customer service agents (Sales-transferred to tech support-transferred back to sales) I dealt with at Verizon were all great to deal with. The one who actually handled my order took the time to see if she could bundle the new service with my existing cell phone service.

Because I had no outstanding balance from before, and because I had never missed a payment, she was able to convert my pre-paid plan to a regular one. Nothing about my cell phone plan will change. Same coverage, same features. That and the wi-fi with no data caps will run me an even $100 per month.  Savings total $12.39 a month. Not a lot, but enough for a nice dinner out.

As always, dear reader, I thank you for taking the time to read this.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Goodbye Napster

I have long been a subscriber to the service whose current name is Napster. This is a company that came into existence when Rhapsody and the second version of Napster, merged. They changed the name not that long ago.

The service has changed quite a bit over the years. They used to offer the ability to buy songs. I was disappointed when they eliminated that feature. At one time, you could still use older versions of the software, but now, you have to install whatever version is current.

This is a problem for me, because the current version is extremely unstable on my system. I get the distinct feeling that the entire thing is coded to run just fine on newer operating systems. I'm still running Windows 7, for a variety of reasons.

When I say "unstable", I mean just that. It will skip songs randomly that are in a play list. It will play the first few seconds of a song then go to the next one. It will freeze up and then I wind up having to terminate the entire process in Task Manager.

Napster no longer has telephone based customer support, which is just so wrong. I have chatted on-line with a few different customer service agents, all of whom make the same suggestions.

Log out, then log back in. That makes no difference.

Try running it in compatibility mode. Again, this doesn't help at all.

Uninstall the program and do a clean re-installation. Again, this is just a waste of time.

Now, please don't get me wrong. I love the service. There's a vast library of music, much of which I had never been aware of prior to finding it on the service.  It's a real bargain at $9.99 a month...when it works.

My long time work around for the software issues has been to download songs for off-line play. This has worked just fine for as long as I can remember. Granted, the quality isn't the best, as the files are WMA-encoded at just 156 kps. but I use a good audio enhancer that brings everything up to what I consider to be acceptable.

Now, this is where things get tricky. Also, where they get upsetting for me.

For well over a decade, the standard coding for digital rights management was software created by Microsoft. In the case of files from Napster, use of DRM coding is how they make sure that the files will play only for as long as a membership is active. The licenses are set to renew automatically every thirty days.

Until now, everything worked fine. But, on July 14th, Microsoft ended its remaining support for DRM licenses. They had shut down most of the servers exactly two years earlier on July 14, 2015.

No servers means no support for the coding. In turn, Napster shut down its own DRM servers, because there's no point in maintaining something  you can't actually use anymore.

I understand that. I really do. But what this means is that downloading music from the service, which has long been a part of the service, is gone. Files that I have downloaded prior to July 14th of this year no longer play, because their licenses can't be renewed. Files downloaded after July 14th are useless as well, because there is no license to activate.

Now, when I say that what I've long been able to do is something I can't do anymore, there is one thing I do need to point out, in all fairness.

Downloading files to a smart phone or tablet using the Napster app still works just fine. At least, I think it does. I'm basing that statement on what a customer service agent told me yesterday.

But, damn it, I don't own a smart phone. I once borrowed one from a friend for a few hours, just to see if getting one of my own was a good idea.

It wasn't, not at all. I do not have the technical knowledge nor the aptitude to learn such knowledge, that is required.

So, to recap:

1 - I would buy songs individually if I still could. I can't do that.

2- I would still use an older version of the software if that were an option. It's not.

3- The current software is fine when it works properly. Unfortunately, it's very unstable, at least on my operating system.

4- Napster had two years in which to re-encode their files using the new software Microsoft developed to replace DRM coding. Two years, people.

5- For whatever reasons they had, they decided to just leave things as they were. They did this with the full knowledge that some of their loyal customers would be, to put it bluntly, royally screwed.

6- Like some other streaming services, Napster seems to have taken an attitude that boils down to "if they don't have a smart device, tough luck."

I'm upset with all this, as you can see. I am looking for an alternative service but so far, I've yet to find one that offers the option for download and off line use of music files.

If you're still reading this, thank you. I really just needed to vent about this, as it were.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Ads And Trackers On Web Sites

The issue of ads and trackers on web sites is becoming one I really hate having to deal with. I'm well aware that most sites exist to turn a profit, and even non-profit ones need to pay the bills. I'm fine with small ads that are placed in a corner or at the bottom of a page.

But good grief, people. More and more sites, including one of my long time favorites, Pajiba, are increasingly loaded with so much garbage as to be almost unusable. Pajiba, for instance, has just recently added what can only be termed "click bait" ads that are powered by something called Zergnet.

If you're fortunate enough to not yet be familiar with this sort of thing, great. Let me fill you in on a few details.

These ads have embedded links in them. Click on a photo and be taken to another site. Among the current ones on Pajiba are gems like this:

"What The Game Of Thrones Cast Should Really Look Like"

"Movie Bloopers That Were Way Too Good To Cut"

"Actor Replacements That Totally Ruined The Movie"

Oh, and just to make things even more fun, every first letter in each word is in bold. Like this:

"This Is Driving Me Nuts"

On the main page of the site, there are usually six to eight of these on the right hand side of the page.

Open a new page to read an article and you get those plus another eight to twelve at the bottom of the page.

You know, I really hate to be picking on Pajiba. I've been reading it on a regular basis ever since it first came on line. Its coverage of pop culture and current events is really good. But right now, it's the worst offender I'm personally familiar with when it comes to these horrible advertisements.

And don't get me started on the trackers that attempt to track every single move you make on line. I use a great, free service called "Ghostery" that blocks these little suckers and also will show you the names of them if you want to see them.

For the record, Ghostery blocked forty-one trackers when I was on Pajiba just before starting this post. Also, for the record, when I viewed this blog, just one was listed.

Very few things in life are truly free. Most of what is "free" on line will cost you big time in the end in terms of lost privacy. The software used to analyze what we do when we're on line is very advanced. Visit enough sites enough times and someone, somewhere, can and will be able to paint a very detailed picture of who you are.

I know. I'm here, telling you to be careful what sites you visit. But in the end, we all make our own decisions. Personally, there are several sites I no longer visit because of the issues I've discussed today. I hate to think that Pajiba might be the next to go, but it's going to be a close call, either way.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Today I Had One Hour That Felt Exactly Like The 1970s

I got my hair cut today. If you've read previous posts, you may already know that I go to a very traditional barber shop. This place looks almost exactly the same as it did thirty years ago. The barber chairs are the same. The magazine rack and stereo system haven't changed or been moved. There are comfortable chairs and a sofa to sit on that have been there for as long as I remember.

When I walked in, the barber had just started working on someone. He smiled and told me I was next. I sat down and just started to relax almost immediately. For the whole hour I was there, everything felt like I had gone back in time.

The barber's son, who looks to be about 15 or 16, never looked at a cell phone. Instead, he carried on a conversation with his uncle. I just sat in one of the chairs and relaxed. There are some nice paintings of famous places on the wall, and I just kept admiring them. While I was getting my hair cut, someone else walked in, inquired as to the price of a hair cut, and then sat down to wait his turn.

He read a magazine while he waited.

It was amazing. So very nice to have just to have one whole hour with no television blaring. No cell phones being used. People carrying on conversations or waiting quietly and patiently for their turn.

It was hot outside, with the temperature closing in on ninety. The air conditioner was working just right. It was blessedly cool inside. It brought back memories of a time when businesses actually used the presence of air conditioning in their establishments as a selling point.

As I said, it was amazing. It was the kind of thing that deepens my commitment to living a retro lifestyle. 

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Kevin The Caterer?

I'm sorry for the long time between this post and the previous one. I had this post ready to go on Friday, but that afternoon I came down with a mild case of food poisoning that made me just want to sleep. I had purchased and used what turned out to be a bad batch of pasta sauce. I've contacted the company who made it by e-mail to let them know what happened.

Friday night, in the middle of the night, I woke up from a dream in which I was catering a wedding reception. As you may or may not know, going into business for myself as a caterer is something I want to do that I am well trained for.

There are some very good catering companies in this area, and some that aren't so good. I've worked events where the food was very good, and I've worked events where the food was terrible.

I know I can turn out very good food in large amounts. I've done it enough times to be certain of that. The key, I believe, to doing this and being successful involves two main ideas.

Idea number one is that I must offer something unique. Something that people will want more of once they've had it the first time.  I have a concept in mind that I'm working on.

Idea number two is that I will need to hire people who are well trained. This shouldn't be an issue, because the program I graduated from always has people who can be counted on. I know that if I ask the head of the program for recommendations, he will give me the information on some very good guys and gals to get in touch with.

I know that there are people in my life who will support me in this, and that there are people who will second guess me. That's nothing new.

Wish me good luck.