Archive for April, 2007

Photos From My Trip To Japan & Taiwan

Monday, April 30th, 2007

Last December (2006) I needed to get about 15,000 more miles on my American Airlines account so I could requalify for Executive Platinum status for this year, as I like the free first class upgrades AA offers its top level frequent flyers. As I was going to be in San Francisco for a patent conference at the end of November 2006, I figured I could use the west coast as a launching point to do a so-called “mileage run” and rack up some miles by doing a quick trip across the Pacific.

The original plan had been to visit Tokyo for a full week of both sightseeing and business prospecting, and then head home to Bonaire. However after I had already made all my plans I was informed I needed to go to Taipei, Taiwan, for a business meeting, right in the middle of my Tokyo stay. That basically ate almost 3 days out of my Tokyo plans, but it turned out to be a fun adventure.

For two of the two and half days I spent in Tokyo, I hired a private tour guide, Junko Matsuda, to take me around. Junko, who runs Jun’s Tokyo Discovery Tours, had been recommended to me by someone at http://www.FlyerTalk.com, and what a treasure she was! If anyone wants a personal tour and explanation of everywhere and anywhere in Tokyo, consider hiring Junko – she can be reached by e-mail at me2@gb3.so-net.ne.jp or phone at +81-3-5477-6021 (or mobile at +81-90-7734-0079). In the links below to my photos, Junko is the Japanese woman that appears in them with some frequency. I also gave her a camera to use during our tour to take photos of me (since I rarely ever appear in photos as I am always taking them).

I also hired another set of guides – Naoto Nakamura and Eizaburo Yoshino (see their page here) – as part of a group tour of the famed Tsukiji Fish Market. As my body had not yet adjusted to the time zone, a 4am meeting for that tour worked out fine, and we had only one other participant on the tour. The fish market tour was excellent, with both Naoto and Eizaburo highly knowledgeable of the workings at the fish market.

I spent nearly a full day in transit between Tokyo and Taipei and back for a 1 hour meeting, but we (my friends/business associates and I) had a good local guide in our off time in Taipei, and got to visit Taipei 101 (the tallest building in the world at that time) and a Taipei night market, as well as several local dining establishments where we feasted on all sorts of delights, including pig’s intestines (tasted a lot better than it sounds).

I am nearly a half year late getting the 946 hand-selected pictures from my travels posted on-line because I had grand aspirations of annotating each one of them with a description.

I was off to a good start (see here and here) using the Photo Gallery software that came with my blogging system, but the scope of the effort, which involved both getting the photos to the right size as well as upload and annotate them, quickly overwhelmed me. I got about half way through my first full day in Tokyo doing that (again, look here and here) – so only about 150 photos out of 946 annotated.

But with a holiday weekend on Bonaire this weekend, and the mostly enjoyable use of Adobe’s Lightroom software, I decided to make simple web-based photo galleries instead and finally get the photos where folks could see them before they became too outdated. They don’t have any contextual annotation other than camera and exposure information, but hopefully those viewing the images will enjoy the subjects almost as much for their sheer interest (and in some cases, beauty or novelty) without the commentary I have not had time to add.

Here are the links to the photos:

Traveling From California to Tokyo and Arriving in Tokyo – December 2-3, 2006

Touring Tokyo with Junko (Asakusa, Kitchen District, Akihabara, Imperial Palace, Ginza) – December 4, 2006

Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo – December 5, 2006

Taipei, Taiwan with friends/business associates Eric, Isabelle, Bryan, and Ivan – December 5-6, 2006

Return from Taipei to Tokyo (Roppongi) followed by another day in Tokyo with Junko (Harajuku, Meiji, Shibuya, War Memorial) – December 7-8, 2006

If you have any questions about any of them, give a link to the photo in the comments on this blog entry with your question, and I will answer you.

Xbox Live Account Management and Support Needs an Overhaul

Thursday, April 26th, 2007

While Microsoft’s apparent goal with their gaming hardware – first the Xbox and then the Xbox 360 – is to have it be ubiquitous, and in conjunction with that, sell lots of Xbox Live memberships, their implementation and support of multiple Xbox households sucks, to put it bluntly. At one point I had several Xbox in my house, and yet another in my office in Texas. Because of the lack of portability of Xbox Live accounts, I had set up three Xbox Live accounts on those various systems.

When the Xbox 360 came out, I got two separate Xbox Live Gold accounts for similar reasons (and thanks to Xploder’s Xbox 360 Cheat Saves I can actually use the same Xbox Live Gold Gamertag on two different Xbox 360s, so my third Xbox 360 shares with one of my other ones).  After a few months of parallel uses, I bundled up the original Xbox systems in my house and put them away, seeing as many of the Xbox games I liked to play worked on the Xbox 360 (or at least there was indication they would be supported sooner or later).

So now, a year later, I start getting these “Automatic Renewal Notification for Yearly subscription to Xbox Live” e-mails from Microsoft telling me I will be automatically billed for a renewal of my old Xbox Live accounts. The e-mail says:

Dear Jake Richter,

Your subscription to Yearly subscription to Xbox Live is scheduled to be automatically renewed on Monday, April 16, 2007. Here is a description of the service:

We’re glad that you’ve chosen to challenge your friends in the ultimate high-speed gaming arena, with access to downloads, tournaments, and exclusive features like your unique gamertag and friends list across every game. Your subscription to Xbox LiveTM covers 12 months of Xbox LiveTM service. For this subscription you will be charged $49.99 per year, plus applicable taxes. Unless you cancel your subscription before it ends, you will automatically renew to the currently selected renewal subscription type at the then current price, which is viewable in the Account Management section of the Xbox Dashboard. For information about cancelling your subscription and the refund policy for your subscription, please see http://www.xbox.com/live/accounts.

Please confirm that your account and payment information is up to date.

To update your credit card information, go to the Xbox Dashboard, select Xbox Live, and then select Account Management and update your billing information. If you have any questions, please go to http://www.xbox.com/support or call Xbox Customer Support at 1 (800) 4MY-XBOX.

Thank you for using Microsoft Online Services.

The Xbox Live team.

Note: Please do not respond to this message.

To receive notifications at a different e-mail address, go to the Xbox Dashboard, select Xbox Live, and then select Account Management and update your billing information.

It was very nice of them to notify me about this pending renewal, so I figured I would go and cancel the account since I no longer needed it. But I could not do so.

Notice something missing in Microsoft’s message? First, there’s no account ID information in the e-mail. So, I have no idea what account this refers to, and being an aging 42 years old, I no longer remember my exact account names.

Second, the only way to access my account is through the Xbox Live interface on the Xbox consoles. But the three consoles, which each have separate Xbox Live accounts (and I have no idea which one this renewal notice refers to), are either somewhere in my vast storage unit, or in my office in Texas a couple thousand miles away from here on Bonaire, and I’m not about to buy a plane ticket just to cancel the account. Note that I did try the support link shown in Microsoft’s e-mail, but that was useless, as there’s no account management option for Xbox Live accounts on the web site – you have to use the Xbox to get in. And even if there were, I have no idea what the Gamertags to use would be because Microsoft chose to not include them in the renewal notice to me.

So, I do the next thing Microsoft suggests. Twice. I call Xbox Customer Support at 1-800-4MY-XBOX. You may remember the outsourcing outcry during the last presidential elections. Well, people should not have been complaining about jobs being lost to Indian telecomm workers but instead to the absolutely horrific level of support those Indian telecomm people provide.

Both my lengthy calls went something like this – and I should note that there was huge amounts of background noise, so I could not hear the support guy very well (and that was on top of interpreting his accented English):

Me: Hi, I just got a renewal notice for one of my Xbox Live accounts, but I need to cancel it.

Jeem Bahb the Indian Support Dude (not his real name): What is your gamer tag?

Me: I don’t know. I have five of them, but don’t know exactly what three of them are. This is one of those three.

Jeem Bahb: Five? (he sounds puzzled)

Me: Yes. I have lots of different systems and accounts.

Jeem Bahb: Why?

Me: Because I do. Some of my systems are in different locations too.

Jeem Bahb: But I need your gamer tag to help you.

Me: I don’t know the one the notice refers to. Would be nice if your notice mentioned the gamer tag so I could tell you. Can you find it some other way?

Jeem Bahb: No. Well, maybe. Let me put you on hold. (Goes away for several minutes)

Jeem Bahb: Ok. What’s your address?

Me: Well, I’m on the Caribbean island of Bonaire, but how does that help you?

Jeem Bahb: I need an address.

Me: What kind of address?

(This exchange goes on for a bit and I finally get him to explain he needs my billing address for the account so he can attempt to use that to look things up.)

Me: I don’t know which credit card I used on the account in question, and the credit card would determine the billing address. How about I give you one of my billing addresses and you see what you can find?

Jeem Bahb: Ok.

Me: (I give the address over about a three minute span, because Jeem Bahb either can’t spell, is dyslexic, or something – I keep having to repeat myself)

Jeem Bahb: Be right back (goes away for five minutes)

Jeem Bahb: I’m sorry, but I can’t find it.

Me: Well, could you look it up by my e-mail address?

Jeem Bahb: Maybe. What is the e-mail address?

Me: (same agonizing effort to get him to copy my e-mail address down properly)

Jeem Bahb: Be right back (goes away for several more minutes)

Jeem Bahb: Oh, and I need your gamer tag too.

Me: Can I speak with your supervisor?

Jeem Bahb: I don’t know. Let me see. (goes away for several more minutes, comes back to ask me to hold some more, and then goes away again. I hang up during this last wait)

The second attempt at resolving this by phone did not go much better (actually I think it was worse, as I had guesses on the gamertags in question, but still could not get them to assist – they suggested I get on my Xbox to manage my account). All this left me with a rather sour taste in my mouth when it comes to both Microsoft Xbox support as well as the outsourcing of support to India.

But I did not feel entirely defeated. I figured I had one last option – I tried using e-mail support as suggested on an obscure page of the Xbox web site.

Here’s what I sent them:

Service:

Xbox Live

What type of problem do you have?

xbox live – other

Full Name:

Jake Richter

What e-mail address would you like a response sent to?

jake@xxxxx.yyy

Be specific when describing your problem. The details that you include enable us to promptly send you the most likely solution to your issue.

According to an e-mail from Microsoft I was billed yesterday for an Xbox Live Renewal. However neither of my two Xbox Live Xbox 360 accounts were due for renewal, so the e-mail must refer to one of my old and abandoned *or so I had hoped* regular Xbox Xbox Live accounts. I no longer have access to any of those 3 Xbox systems, and as your e-mail made no reference to the gamer tag it was renewing, I have no idea what’s up. The renewal e-mail was sent to jake@xxxxx.yyy, and had a date of 03/21 – hopefully that will help you locate it. Please reverse the charge and cancel the related Xbox Live account’s automatic renewal – it’s probably one of these gamer tags: [redacted1], [redacted2], or [redacted3].

Oh, and please, in future renewal e-mails, list the Gamer Tag and provide a Web-based method of being able to access the account. Requiring someone who might have multiple accounts to guess/remember what the e-mail refers to is stupid. And requiring people to have to use their console to manage the billing on the account is equally inane, especially in a world moving to the next gen consoles from the previous generation, where even more confusion arises.

Which operating system are you using?Windows XP: Mozilla/5.0 (Windows; U; Windows NT 5.1; en-US; rv:1.8.1.3) Gecko/20070309 Firefox/2.0.0.3

Which browser are you using: Firefox2.0.0.3

Location: en-us – English (United States)

Type of Support: E-mail Support

The eminently useful reply I got back was one I should have figured on, but nonetheless it was still a rude shock:

Hello Jake!

Thank you for writing Xbox Customer Support!

We deeply apologize for the inconvenience. I understand that you have problem with regards to billing and cancellation of your Xbox Live account.

But all cancellations, billing questions, inquiries, and account or subscription problems are being address through our phone support line. We at email support lines do not have the capabilities to process your request. Proper troubleshooting and immediate action will be given to your inquiries or request. It is best that you call the Xbox Customer Support number for better assistance; United States and Canada: 1-800-4MY-XBOX (1-800-469-9269) International direct dial to US: 1- 425-635-7180.

For further assistance, please don’t hesitate to write back or call Xbox Phone Support at your earliest convenience, and we will be happy to help you.

Xbox Customer Support Hotline: 1-800-4MY-XBOX (1-800-469-9269)

International (direct dial to U.S.): 425-635-7180

Sincerely,

Jay

Xbox Customer Care Team

So, basically, they suggested I go back to phone hell. I tried to point this out to them:

I have attempted to do this with your phone support group and they are, sad to say, completely useless. First, the Indian gentleman I spoke with was very difficult to hear because of an incredible amount of background noise in his call center. Second, he could not fathom why someone might have five different Xbox Live accounts. Third, he was unable to look up which gamer tage/Live ID it was that the e-mail from Microsoft referenced.

Please escalate this to a supervisor.

Jake Richter

The response was a bit more helpful, assuming I was willing to subject myself to Indian support phone torture, which I was not after having wasted an hour on this matter already:

Hello Jake,

Thank you for writing Xbox Customer Support!

Thank you for writing to Xbox Live. I am sorry to hear that you had problems trying to cancel your Xbox Live Account when you called the Xbox Customer Support. It seems that there was a problem trying to pull up information for the gamertag that you wish to cancel.

We are more than eager to assist you with your concern, however, this support line is only limited to technical troubleshooting and Xbox setup only. Cancellation of Xbox Live accounts could not be done via email support line due to the inaccessibility of your secured customer account via this support option.

We are requesting for your patience to call the Xbox Customer Support again for the cancellation of your Xbox Live account be given immediate and proper action. Access to a customer’s account information requires high level of verification and or personal information could not be divulged over email. This is for the confidentiality and security of your account.

Again, we apologize for any inconvenience. Thank you for visiting Xbox.com.  If you need to reply to this e-mail, please reply ‘with history’ (include any previous e-mail) so we can expedite our service to you. If you should have future questions on Xbox products or services, please be sure to revisit our Web site as we are continually adding information to enhance our service.

Please call the Xbox Customer Support in the United States or Canada at 1-800-4MYXBOX (1-800-469-9269), at your earliest convenience, and we will be happy to help you. We are open everyday from 9am to 1am EST/ 6am to 10pm PST.

To expedite service, please provide Service Request Number 1032019023 when you call.

For more information about Xbox Live, please visit our website at http://www.xbox.com/en-US/live.

Sincerely,

Taynz

Xbox Customer Care Team

My reply was succinct:

So where do I go when e-mail support tells me to contact Phone support, and phone support has no clue what they are doing and tells me that in not so many words?

Jake

Microsoft Xbox Support’s reply was non-existant.

This saga ends with Microsoft somehow managing to charge me for a one year subscription on a credit card that had been cancelled months earlier, and my disputing the charge with American Express, who indicated they would be happy to work this all out with Microsoft on my behalf. Bless them.

But now I have a new saga to embark on – my inability to pay for a second installation of the Blastacular map pack for Halo 2 on the same gamertag. Actually, it would be more accurate to say that I cannot download a second installation that I wish to pay for. I may have actually already been charged, but the system won’t let me download. The background is that I succeeded in installing the map pack last night on two of my Xbox 360s (each having a unique gamer tag), but this morning after I acknowledged my desire to purchase the map pack again, it failed to install on my third Xbox 360, which uses the same gamer tag for Xbox Live as one of the other systems. And the error message says I need to contact Xbox Support.

I don’t think I have enough alcohol in the house to dull the pain another call to Xbox Support would cause.

Update – May 25, 2007: I just found that American Express was not successful (in this pass) in having the charge reversed for the membership I could not get Microsoft to acknowledge nor cancel. Microsoft told AMEX that I apparently renewed the subscription. Not sure how that’s possible as they can’t even tell me what membership it is, and the Xbox it is attached to has not been used in many many months (and I’m not sure which Xbox it even is). I will note, however, that in the interim, the two other old Xbox Live accounts were not renewed and Microsoft was nice enough to send me e-mails to indicate my credit card for those accounts was invalid, which is as it should be, since I had cancelled it back in January. I have resubmitted my charge dispute to AMEX, with a link to this blog entry for further support. Let’s see what happens next.

The Perfect Alarm Clock For Teenagers

Thursday, April 19th, 2007

My daughter is only a couple months shy of her 12th birthday, but already exhibits the sleeping habits of many teenagers. She ignores her normal alarm clock, cannot wake up easily, and sleeps through most anything, including her parents’ cajoling. Until now.

pic

The folks at Hammacher Schlemmer are selling something they call the Flying Alarm Clock (pictured above). This $39.95 clock offers a rather unique feature – a rotor which is launched into the air when the alarm goes off, and which needs to be retrieved and reinserted into the clock to shut off the police siren-like klaxon sound emitted by the alarm clock.

And boy does it work. Our resident sleepyhead pops right out of bed when this baby is set off, alert and awake (and you’d know why if you heard the alarm – it’s loud and nasty, but oh so effective). She’s not happy at being awake or alert, but her adrenaline levels are high enough from hunting for the missing rotor while the alarm is blaring to prevent her from going back to sleep easily. Mission accomplished.

The only problem we have encountered so far is that a necessary part of the rotor separated from the rotor this morning (we had not snapped it in tight enough during assembly, apparently), and was temporarily lost, preventing us from shutting off the klaxon sound. We managed to use a pen to shut off the alarm in the interim (the only other option being unscrewing the bottom to remove the batteries). The missing piece was later discovered in a nearby laundry hamper.

In any case, I give the Hammacher Schlemmer Flying Alarm Clock a 9.0 out of a possible 10.0 on The Richter Scale. It is a perfect present to torture the sleepyhead in your family.

Windows Vista Is A Disappointment

Thursday, April 19th, 2007

Time to dust off this blog. My wife’s knee replacement surgery went well a couple of weeks ago, and I’m back on Bonaire with the kids. While I was in New Hampshire during Linda’s surgery, I decided to buy a new Hewlett-Packard IQ-770 PC to put in my kitchen back home. The IQ-770, which features a touch screen and family-friendly organization software is also designed specifically for Windows Vista, and seemed like a good fit for family use in a central location.

Using Vista itself was a bit different, obviously, than using Windows XP, which we have all gotten comfortable with. Vista is flashier and prettier – that’s for sure. But on the whole, I still much prefer Windows XP. Here’s why:

– Vista’s prompts asking if I’m sure I want to run some software or do something it deems insecure drive me nuts. I thought the recent bought of Apple commercials with the Windows “guy” dressed in a suit and the Mac “guy” in casual duds to be overblowing the whole “are you sure” prompt thing, but jeez, it’s real. And annoying. I’m sure there’s a way to turn this off (have to go read my friend Ed Bott’s Vista book for this), but out of the box it’s a real turn-off.

– For all these protections, Vista still seems less stable. I had at least three blue screens of death during my set-up of the system when installing both new software as well as Microsoft-supplied updates. And the mouse stopped working after the system came back from being in sleep mode (a reboot fixed that and the touch screen got me to where I could reboot). Things seem to finally be working now, but getting to a working system with the software I wanted running was a hassle. For those wondering, I installed the Student edition of Office 2007, Adobe Premiere Elements 3, Adobe Photoshop Elements 5, Dragon Naturally Speaking (for Vista), and NaturalReader. Oh, and gobs of Windows and driver updates from Microsoft.

– The IQ770 has a 1.6GHz AMD Turion 64 X2 Dual-Core (not a slow CPU by any means) and 2GB of fast memory. So why the heck does it take nearly four (4) !!!! minutes to go from power-on to being fully operational? I haven’t seen horrific boot times like that since Windows 98 on an underpowered machine with zillions of drivers and start-up utilities. Perhaps regular folks can get away with not having to regularly reboot their PCs, but with all the blue screens and problems I found coming out of sleep mode, reboots seemed to be essential. At four minutes, I could probably hunt down a chicken, pry an egg or two out of it and have an omelet ready before the bloody system was done booting. Ridiculous and unnecessary. Note that this boot time didn’t seem to vary much between a clean system and one with software installed.

The one thing I have found in Vista that I like are the widgets you can put on the side of the screen, but that’s pretty minor. The IQ770 is presently in transit from the U.S., and when it gets here I will upgrade to Vista Ultimate when I have a chance to see if it adds any must-have features (from my perspective). One thing I would love Vista to have would be the ability to stream content FROM another Media Center PC, but for some reason Microsoft has determined that all PCs must be servers, and that only Xbox 360s can be Media Center clients. I already have three Xbox 360s and don’t need (or have space) for another one.

And speaking of the HP IQ770 – it’s a very interesting design, and the HP SmartTouch software seems pretty handy, although my use of it was limited in the few days I had with the system before packing it up. One thing that just floors me though is that the machine does not have an input jack for microphone. One of the things I want to use the IQ770 for is voice recognition. While the system does have a built in array microphone, that does not provide enough noise cancellation for my needs, and the handy headset that Nuance provides with Dragon Naturally Speaking is useless without a microphone or line-in jack on the PC. I’m hoping that a USB adapter for a headset I have here will work to overcome that issue.

In any event, so far Windows Vista has left me completely underwhelmed. I don’t know if that’s because I had higher expectations based on all the media fluff Microsoft has been spewing in my direction, or because I am an experienced PC user and have higher standards than an average newbie PC user. Either way, I’m disappointed. Vista is not the WOW that Microsoft advertises. It’s more like WOE – Waste Of Energy.