Copyright

All blog posts, unless otherwise noted, are copyrighted to the Author (that's me) and may not be used without written permission.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Procession

I was amazed when we left the church and drove in a funeral procession to the grave site for M's grandfather. Without a police escort, on both sides of the street, traffic came to a veritable halt. People on the streets removed hats as we passed. Without a cop and completely on their own, traffic allowed us through intersections without issue.

The last time I saw a funeral procession was in Irvine. I was driving to a store on a weekend and saw a police motorcycle ride up to an intersection on (I think it was) Jamboree and begin to wave all directions to stop. The funeral procession arrived and he waved it through as the police escort at the rear of the procession sped past him to do the same at the next intersection.

It so happened that I was turning to follow that same direction, and I noted that traffic on both sides of the street did not stop for the funeral. Some cars had to be "convinced" by the escort to get out of the way of the funeral by pulling into the slow lane! Traffic on the opposite side of the road didn't pull over or even slow down. And I can't remember a single person below the age of 50 bowing a head or removing a hat.

There is something to be said for being in a town (well, really, a big city) where people still pull over for a funeral procession and remove any head coverings.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Windows 7

I downloaded the RC for Windows 7 and have planned to install it somewhere for testing for quite some time. M decided she wanted to test it for work-related reasons, so I installed it on her older laptop. Just this week, after successfully using it on the laptop for about a month, I decided to try to update my desktop PC with the OS.

Now, I have been successfully using Vista since release. I love Vista. Yes, it has some quirks that you have to turn off and some different behaviors from XP/98/95 that you need to relearn, but overall it has been:

A. More stable than XP, requiring no "just because" reinstalls.
B. Faster than XP.
C. Chock full of nice gadgets and extras that XP didn't have inherently; for example, the Snip tool.

Of course, prior to going from XP to Vista, I paid attention, ran the compatibility wizard, and read the suggested minimums and the suggested "full value" requirements and was prepared. I knew what I was getting into and didn't rely on a third party vendor's determination that something was "Vista Compatible" (of those who tell me they hate Vista, most have never actually used it for more than a few minutes. Of those who have, most were tricked into thinking the machine they got could run all the Vista bells and whistles by the "Vista Compatible" proclamation, when this was not actually true).

In order for Windows 7 to impress me, it has to be as stable, as fast, and have as good an amount of nifty tools and features as Vista.

What I have discovered so far:
The Clean Install I did on the laptop went very smoothly and incredibly fast. In not much over 30 minutes we were up and running. This did not include all the additional software uploads required (like the Office Suite, work-related programs, and MacAfee).

The Upgrade Install I attempted on my PC hanged each time on the final step (of five steps) at 72% complete. I attempted it three times and each time it got to the exact same spot and stopped. The first time I left it running at this point for 4 hours to see if it was just a really big file being moved/copied/installed. The second two times I waited an hour and a half-hour before aborting. The Custom Install I did worked the first time and in under an hour.

Obviously I cannot speak to stability yet. However, the laptop has been running Win7 for over a month now and we have seen some incredible boosts to its performance. This laptop is a few years old now and was having some stability issues and performance problems prior to the installation. Since then, it is booting much faster and a few of performance issues seem to be gone or minimized. I'm only now using it hard again, as I went back to work on another contract, and it is handling everything I'm throwing at it very easily and well, including multiple monitors, VNC connections, internet and network connections, Office Suite use, screen captures, picture modifications, playing music, and everything else I do in an average day with it.

One thing we noted almost immediately; the laptop has older USB drivers and is an older machine. When we wanted to transfer some very large files using USB thumb drives, my suped-up Vista machine (this was prior to my upgrade) would transfer the file at a pretty fast rate, much faster than M's PC would (about 2.5-3x the speed of her multimedia machine running XP). However, when we transferred the exact same file from the exact same USB drive on the laptop running Win7, it was transferring at about 11x the same speed!

Yesterday and today I have spent some time setting up, redownloading, and installing many of the applications I "lost" when I did the Clean Install (they aren't lost, they are in a folder called Windows.old, I'm just leery about copying them over instead of reinstalling from scratch with the new OS). My download speeds seem to be faster and more consistent now than they were with Vista (and I had good transfer rates in that OS). For example, downloading the rather large COH and Open Office files, I was averaging around 350 kb/s. In Vista I usually was between 250 and 300 best-case; still great, but not as good.

I'm also noting that, in Vista with the new ASRock motherboard I installed recently, I was having trouble with the OS reporting the network speed as 10 mbps instead of the default 100 mbps it should have. And sometimes it would bounce to 0 mbps even though I was currently online! So far with the new OS it has been consistently reading at 100 mbps each and every time I've given the network a surprise inspection.

I did make the mistake of installing the non-Win7 Beta of Trend Micro Internet Security and that completely hosed me for a couple of hours. Something about that caused me to lose all administrator rights to my machine, and I had to roll back to prior to the install to recover from that. I found the beta and have had no issues since. Also discovered that the rollback feature works very quickly and easily. Booting from off or sleep mode also appears to be pretty quick (hard to tell if it is faster than Vista right now, but it is pretty quick and feels faster than before).

The UAC that so many hated in Vista is still in evidence. I've been slowly turning down the settings trying to find a happy medium between letting it run and turning it off entirely. At this point, I'm close to turning it off entirely, as I did in Vista. Microsoft needs to learn; if we click "Ok, let this program run" we should have an option to make that the permanent position of the UAC and not get that window again for that program. I do not like, for example, having to tell the OS every single time that City of Heroes and LOTRO are okay and please let them run. Hell, just typing this in explanation moves me another step closer to just switching it off.

I did have some trouble with getting my Logitech G15 keyboard to work properly in Win 7. I could use it as a keyboard, and I could set up my profiles for my games, but when I went into COH and tried to use my carefully crafted macros/binds from the G keys, they wouldn't work. After much internet reading, trial and error, and tinkering, I now have it working ... I logged into COH on one of my more complex characters and was able to use all of the binds for the character without difficulty. So that pleases me (hell, if I hadn't been able to get that working, this may have been a short test of the new OS!).

There is one nifty feature I was looking forward to using that I can't seem to get to work; if you move a window to the upper left or right, it is supposed to "snap" to half the screen, allowing you to snap a second window to the other half. This is useful for comparing documents, copying from one folder to another, etc. I simply cannot make it work. I read the help detail on it and, instead of getting the little screen indicator at half the screen size, I am always getting it full-screen. However, I can right-click the toolbar and select "show windows side by side" and it will perform the action for me. Not as convenient as the drag method, but still useful.

I'm happy the Snip tool is still here and I really like the small but effective changes to the Calculator gadget. I just found and have fallen in love with the sticky notes-- this was a gadget for the gadget bar in Vista, that they have taken out and made more readily available outside of the gadget arena.

I do not like how some of the features, like Sharing, display on the icons. I shared my printer so M could print to it, and the icon didn't change at all (in Vista and earlier, a special "sharing" graphic displayed right on the icon). However, at the bottom of the screen, the sharing image I was expecting was visible-- it just wasn't obvious or easy to see.

So far I haven't run into any hardware compatibility issues with Win 7. Everything I read says this should remain true; many testers are finding hardware they could never make work in Vista is now functioning again with Win7.

Monday, August 17, 2009

No Longer Blue

Some of you may remember my ongoing issues with my American Express Blue account. After a fairly unsatisfactory end to that customer support issue, M and I discussed whether we would keep that card active or cancel it. After much debate on both sides, we decided to pay off the balance and keep it active as a "just in case" card. I took it out of my wallet and set it aside.

Today in the mail I received a letter from American Express about that card. It says that it must be "responsive to the business and economic environment" and, as a result, "found it necessary to increase rates and fees on some of our products." This translates into the following three changes:
  1. Raising (my) APR on purchases and cash advances.
  2. Raising (my) APR on any balances that have a penalty rate due to late payments.
  3. Increasing (my) late fee.
However, the one benefit is that they are no longer charging a fee if (I) go over (my) credit limit. These changes would go into affect on all existing and new charges at a specified time.

I'm sure my wife can verify it for you, but I'm fairly certain I got my "crazy-eyed" look upon reading the letter. I became rather incensed. I immediately called to cancel the card.

Scott, my AmEx Cust Rep, spoke well, thanked me for being a customer since 2007 (note that I got the card before I met my wife, which happened in 2005-- not sure why his information was so wrong), apologized for past poor customer service, and tried to explain to me that these changes were across nearly all product lines (I noted that it was for every standard, blue, and non-platinum/black version of AmEx--when those who have the platinum/black cards are the most likely able to afford rate changes). He also tried to explain that AmEx was simply trying to stay financially viable.

What Scott, and the rest of American Express, simply cannot understand is that I'm not responsible for their poor financial decisions that caused them to be in these straights. And, because I am not responsible for it, I refuse to bear the burden of them righting their ship. Had they not made bad choices of who to give home loans and credit cards to, they wouldn't be in the troubles they are. I was responsible with my credit card and I didn't have a home loan; not my problem to fix.

Secondly, AmEx, and a lot of Credit Card companies, don't seem to understand that you get out of a recession by spending money. Had they kept my APR low and my fees reasonable, I would have been encouraged to spend more, putting money on my card and paying my fees to their company-- and they would make money off of me. By raising my rates, I have canceled my card and now they will get absolutely NO money from me ever again. How does that help them to become financially viable?

I was happy with American Express up until I moved to SJ. On the trip here, I had multiple issues with the card even though I had told them I planned to drive across country and use that card as my primary financial resource. Then I had that issue with them telling me to pay one amount and then being told that was the incorrect amount and, oh by the way, we won't tell you that, even though it is our fault your payment wasn't the right amount, this will cause your rate to go from 9.99% to 27.99% and we'll lop $5,000 off your credit limit.

If American Express had provided me even the minimum level of customer service on any of these issues, I would probably let this go and continue being a member. But the repeated issues with their customer service, their continued insistence that I pay for their bad financial decisions, make me not only not want to be a customer, but to actively campaign against others being a customer of American Express. I hope to convince at least one more person to cancel any and all relationships with the company. As the company bleeds customers, they will make the unwise decision to raise rates yet again to cover their costs and they will bleed more customers. And all because they didn't realize that without customers they don't have a business. Treat the customer right and you've got a customer for life. Treat them poorly and you don't have a business.

And the last sentence of the letter says, "We look forward to continuing to serve you."

No, no thank you. I've been served quite enough by you. My ass is sore, I'm going home.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Air Canada Update

Just got a call back from MaryEllen at Air Canada in regards to my issue. She apologized profusely for not calling me yesterday and then apologized profusely for the "confusion" over the issue. When she brought this matter to the VP, he agreed, in her words, "100% with you... he doesn't understand why Air Canada won't accept money from people who want to give it to us."

She then informed me that they provided my wife and me access to the Maple Leaf Lounge for both directions of the flight. She also said this same VP is taking this issue directly to the senior management and going to try to get this policy changed-- if people want to pay for access to the Lounge, Air Canada should allow them access.

My only small complaint at this point is that I think Air Canada should have given us one set of passes to the Lounge for free for the stupidity of the rule and for making me argue with them so many times. However, because I made a point of the fact we were willing to pay for the access, they charged our credit card for the four passes. I'm fine with that, as it is a principle thing, but if I had been that VP I would have agreed and then given the upset customer something to make him happy beyond the access issue as a way of saying "we're sorry for the inconvenience." However, I'm not looking the gift horse in the mouth.

Score one for persistence.

Monday, August 10, 2009

700

I was reading somewhere something that struck a chord with me. The person, paraphrased because I don't recall the exact way in which he said it, stated that he felt he was lied to by teachers. His teachers, like mine, constantly told him to really study math because you will use it every day of your life. What they should have pressed him on, he lamented, was English.

With apologies to my many friends who have taught or do teach math or work as programmers and engineers and are those few for whom that old adage is true, the vast, vast majority of people do NOT need more than the basics of addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division to get through their daily lives. However, even those who do use more complicated math daily must speak, read, and write every day, multiple times per day.

How often do we read a sign, or a package, or warning labels, a book, a magazine, a web site/blog/forum every day? How often do we speak to those around us, to ourselves, or to our pets? How often do we need to write a note, a blog post, an article, an email? How often do we communicate with others and rely on our message getting through to the other in a clear and precise manner?

One of my long-time friends is a programmer. His day involves knowing math and communicating in languages that are math-based and precise. However, he thanked me once for forcing him to take more challenging English classes because it allowed him to excel at work; he was one of the few programmers who wrote emails clearly and could communicate in meetings in ways that others could understand and follow. His experiences in those harder English classes improved his ability to communicate with those around him and made him, sometimes he claims "unfortunately," better suited to positions of leadership and even management within his company.

From January 1 through to right now, I have needed math a handful of times. My wife and I had to calculate how much wood was delivered after it was finally stacked, and that involved figuring out the volume of a cord of wood and then breaking down the amount we had and figuring out if we were over or short. Outside of that one issue, we haven't needed math on a daily basis beyond calculating the tip on a food bill, adding or subtracting in a check book, some light multiplication or division on occasion. However, we have to communicate, with each other, our friends and family, and our coworkers, bosses, and clients, on a daily, hourly, minute-by-minute basis. Sometimes those communications have been critical; talking with bosses about raises or needed assistance, correcting errors with software, understanding drug interactions on medicines, calming down situations or people, etc.

A lot of students figure "well, I speak it, so I don't need to study it" when it comes to their native language. What they are not understanding is that their understanding and use of the language may be the difference in getting the job, keeping it, and being fired. The clarity of the communications they use may be the difference between getting or keeping the girl and losing her. Their ability to process and respond to written or verbal communication may be the difference between life and death.

If a person shows an aptitude for mathematics, then by all means encourage him/her in that area and see how far he/she can go. But make sure that person can communicate clearly and effectively, both in writing and orally, as well. He or she may be the next Einstein, but who would know it if he/she can't communicate what they discover?

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Air Canada Does It Again

After my previous encounter with Air Canada, I was hopeful that our experience getting lounge passes would be smooth and without complications. We logged in today and, sure enough, we could get lounge passes... for our flight from SJ to Orange County. However, we could not get a lounge pass from Orange County back.

I called the number and got Rosie. She tried to be helpful but insisted that we couldn't purchase lounge passes for the flight home because our flight from SNA is operated by United. What the hell? We have two flights owned and operated by Air Canada on the way home, but because of the one flight during the day that we DO NOT want lounge passes for in the first place is not run by AC, we can't get ANY passes for the ENTIRE flight?

I have to admit that I lost my cool a bit with Rosie. I tried a couple of tacts to get her to see our position, but she was a company woman and couldn't see it and didn't want to hear it. I finally asked to speak with a manager. She put me on hold for quite a bit of time and then came back and said she couldn't get anything except voice mail on any manager's line. She took my information and left a message for her direct manager. I made sure to confirm that a call back would happen today.

What we don't understand is why AC would be so insistent that they don't want people to use the lounge if ANY part of their flight is run by another company. This is, basically, free money to Air Canada. If I was AC, I would accept ANYONE who wanted to pay the $30 per person fee, regardless of flight ownership, into my lounge. The lounge is there 24/7, AC has to staff it... why not allow anyone in who wants to pay?

If I were AC, the lounge passes would be just that... passes. You purchase them from AC and it gives you a physical pass that says "Paid - Admit One". If the airport you are in has a lounge, that pass is taken from you, and you are allowed in. Period. End of story. AC has $30 and I have access to a lounge.

Why, oh why would Air Canada, in this economy and with the financial issues that it claims to be having, be turning away found money?

----

As I was typing the above, I received my first call back from Air Canada on this issue. The manager is checking into the issue and will give us the passes if she can. She said to expect a call back in a half hour or so with the results. Hopefully, for her, the results will be positive as otherwise she's going to get an earful from me on this issue.

----

Just got the call back from MaryEllen at Air Canada. She's sorry, but because the first flight out of Orange County is code shared with United, there is simply NOTHING that they can do about getting us lounge passes for our return flight home.

I think my wife can verify, I let her have it. I actually laughed out loud at her and said, "From everything I read, your company is struggling in this economy, and, you have a customer who is willing to work with you, wants to pay your company more money, and you can't figure out some way to get him the passes?"

"Sorry, sir, there is simply nothing I can do."

She recommended that I put in a complaint via the online system, to which I replied, "Oh, I'll be putting in a complaint."

My ire prompted her to ask if I wanted the situation escalated to the VP level, and I jumped on that (ironically, that was going to be my next statement to her, so she knew where this was going).

She is passing along my information to a VP-level Air Canada representative and I should expect a call tomorrow on this. M and I, meanwhile, are laughing our asses off... wouldn't it be easier to physically send us passes as a good-will gesture to get me off their backs?

Of course, what they don't know is that I am perfectly willing to keep on this like a dog with a bone until I speak with the CEO of the company. I'll MAKE the time to speak with him. I'll rearrange my schedule to accomodate his, if need be. I will let AC know how absurd this business practice is and how stupid it is to leave money laying on the ground or, in this case, in our pocketbooks. It just makes no sense whatsoever to us.

I'm willing to bet that most any other person we walked up to and said, "Here's $30 for each of us, can we sit in your front room and have access to some drinks and the bathroom for a couple of hours?" would be happy to accept the money and let us in. But no Air Canada!

I'll post another update after I speak with the VP.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Pre-Calculus

Sometimes you just have to be pleased with yourself. Today I started back to work and one of the things I really wanted to do was figure out how to make Excel calculate my time correctly on my time sheet so I didn't have to do any manual work calculating anything. Last time I had a nice time sheet but I still had to manually add up the hours I worked each day, and then the hours I worked for the two week period, and then multiply that by my hour rate.

I KNEW that Excel could lessen or eliminate the work for me, but I didn't know how to make it see my time, convert it to a number so I could use that for the adding up of the time worked, and then multiply that out. So I decided if I'm working for another three months, I needed to figure this out.

First thing I did was remove the Lunch column from my spreadsheet and instead have two Start/End time columns. In this way, I am only adding up the pre-lunch and post-lunch hours.

Next, I figured out which time format to use to convert the added to a simple time number without the application adding the AM/PM or anything else.

Finally, and this was the part that took a bit of time, I figured out where in the Help file to find how to convert a time number to a non-time number in a way that I could then use to multiply to get my money due amount based on my hourly rate. It turns out you have to use the following formula:

=(A1-INT(A1))*24*HR

Where "A1" is the field in which the time number is located and "HR" is my hourly rate. This converts the time number into an integer and then multiplies that integer times 24 (hours in a day) and then multiplies that by my current hourly rate. Formatting the cell to give me the results in a dollar figure gives me the number I need for my invoice without me having to do any calculations of my own.

When using Excel or Access, I often find that my main impediment to getting any task done is usually one of language. I don't speak or necessarily know the terms that the particular application wants me to use to ask it questions or perform a task. As my friend and former boss Renee would often comment on, an application, help file, or document is really only as good as its index. If you can't come up with enough ways in which a person will term a given task or item, you will leave someone unable to find the help they seek. I find that Microsoft's documentation is particularly poor at indexing things using terminology I think of to use. So I fail more often than I succeed at finding the help I need even though I may be certain the application can do what I want it to do.

At this point, I only need to enter my start and end times and my total hours worked per day and per week auto-calculate for me, and shows me the dollar figure I need to submit and the dollar figure I need to set aside for taxes.

Now that I have this task accomplished, I can refocus my attention back to the list of documents the company wants me to edit, create, and maintain.