Andre's Blog

Personal blog of Andre Perusse

Telecom and Cable Companies are EVIL! (I have proof)

Like many people, I often complain about my local utility companies and either their lack of features, lack of customer support, or their attitude in general. Lately, the utility companies in my area have actually been pretty good on the features front. I now have a dual-tuner high-definition cable box (something that many American cities still don't have) and my DSL Internet is among the fastest in North America. Despite this good news, I have recently obtained definitive proof that these utility companies are pure evil.

In my last 3 dealings with my local telecom and cable providers, I have been overcharged. It seems as though anytime I change my service plan with either company, they overcharge me. And they do this for months at a time until I realize that something isn't adding up and I call them. Sometimes they are quite belligerent, too. A year or two ago, I added some channels to my cable subscription taking advantage of a "value plan". I got the channels, but the incompetent idgits didn't get the value plan set up on my account. On my first bill, the charges seemed high so I called them. The customer service rep treated me like a three-year-old saying that the charge was normal on the first month due to overlaps in billing periods and other such nonsense. I was ASSURED that everything was set up properly. The next month, my cable bill was still higher than it should have been, so I called again. I think I got the same service rep and she remembered me because she heaved a heavy sigh and said something like "let's walk you through this again" in an exasperated tone. Except this time I was able to point out that I wasn't getting their advertised value plan price. Reluctantly, she agreed and told me it was fixed now. She didn't apologize for overcharging me or for the inconvenience of having to spend 20 minutes on the phone arguing with her. She just said "It's fixed. Goodbye." If I didn't have so many tall trees around my property I would have bought a satellite service right then and there.

More recently, I had the same issue with the telecom company and a very similar scenario. I added a cell phone to my existing "value plan" so both me and my wife would have cell phones. Before I added the new phone, the telecom company sent me one bill. After the addition, they started sending me two. Annoyed, I called them up and asked if I could be sent one combined bill again. The service rep was checking my files and paused for a few moments, obviously confused at what he saw. He put me on hold for several minutes, then came back and said I had been overcharged $10 per month since I got the new phone because the value plan had been "inexplicably deleted" from my account. He had promised that I will be credited the overcharge on my next bill, which I'm hoping will be combined again.

So, based on this overwhelming evidence, I have no other option than to conclude that these utility companies are making a mint by overcharging customers that have signed up for packaged value plans, but are being billed more than the price of the plan because "it wasn't set up properly in the system." I find it hard to believe that the executives in charge aren't aware of this problem (remember, it's happened to me THREE times, and with different companies - it can't be very uncommon). I expect that they're happy to receive the excess revenue and only credit the likely small amount of people who regularly inspect their statements every month and catch the error, and then fight with service reps to convince them of the problem. Why, I'm sure that it would be WAY TOO EXPENSIVE to write some software that examined the features on customer accounts and verify that they're being billed the lowest price. I've written some fairly complex SQL in my day and I know that it can take, oh, sometimes 4 hours to write a complicated SELECT statement to do something like this. Yes, way too expensive.

And these companies want me to sign up for "automatic bank account debits" so they can automatically withdraw funds from my account equal to whatever they feel like charging me? Yeah, right.

Google Maps 1 - Local Live 0

I've always used Google Maps when looking for addresses or places and it's been a pretty good experience. The satellite images are really cool, and they even have relatively high resolution imagery for my location on the Canadian east coast. Now, Microsoft absolutely hates it when some other company enjoys some success in the consumer computer market, so they set out to challenge Google Maps with Live Local, neƩ Virtual Earth. I had checked it out a couple of times but never found it very compelling.

At a recent event in Halifax, however, a Microsoft presenter mentioned Live Local again (in passing really, it wasn't relevant to the presentation) so I decided to give it another look-see today. And here we have another fine example of how Microsoft often fails to live up to the competition. In the two pictures below you can see one image from Google Maps and another from Live Local (bonus points for whoever can identify the location - Darth Mac is excluded, of course). You will notice that the Google Maps version comes in a much higher resolution. You will also notice that Microsoft apparently forgot to pay their satellite imaging bill, and half the image is missing. Good job, guys.

To be fair, there are scenarios where Local Live has the edge. Check out this posting for a different perspective. There's more to Local Live than just satellite imagery, but I saw half my region missing and I stopped looking right away. I live in the most populous region east of Montreal in Canada and Microsoft didn't think it was worthwhile to get detailed satellite photos here. In the words of my former drill sergeant, "GET IT TOGETHER, MICROSOFT!"

So, in the meantime, I will continue to ignore Live Local (or Half-Dead Local as I'm now calling it) and stick with good ol' Google Maps.



Team Foundation Server - First Thoughts

The latest project I'm working on is using Visual Studio 2005, and the license we have allows us to use Team Foundation Server (TFS) Workgroup Edition. The Workgroup Edition is limited to 5 users, but is otherwise fully functional. Taking some advice from the Microsoft Regional Director for my area, I decided to move our small team from Visual SourceSafe (VSS) to TFS. And, as you know if you've been reading my blog at all, I'm a sucker for new technology especially as it relates to my day-to-day job.

So, I get right to work installing this puppy. Instructions? Who reads instructions, right? I knew it needed SQL Server and Windows SharePoint Services (WSS) so off I went. Okay, I did read just a little bit of the instructions and knew that TFS wouldn't work with SQL Server 2005 Development Edition, so I dodged that bullet. I wasn't so lucky with the next bullet, however. I installed WSS and when the web-based admin screen came up, I proceeded to complete the WSS install. Oops. When I started to install TFS immediately afterwards, it chastised me for not reading the installation instructions. With TFS, it doesn't want you to complete the WSS web-based admin portion since TFS completes the WSS setup. The only way to fix it? Unistall and reinstall WSS.

Honestly, this wasn't a big deal. Cost me maybe 10 minutes and that's only because the crappy virtual machine we have for a dev environment is slow as a dog. After I corrected that boo-boo, TFS installed fine. Well, mostly. See, TFS needs two separate service accounts to run - one for the TFS system itself, and one for the Reporting Services piece. It says it can use a local or a domain account, but using a local account pops up a warning that "domain users won't be able to use it". That's no good - all our developers are using domain accounts. Luckily, I had our help desk folks set me up a domain service account for another purpose a few weeks ago so I was able to use that for the TFS service account. Upon attempting to use if for the reporting account, though, TFS squawked at me that I couldn't use the same account for both services. Seeing as how getting the first domain account set up had taken about 6 weeks, I decided to use a local account for this one and damn the "domain users can't use it" message. Who needs reports anyway?

Once TFS was completely installed, my next task was to connect to it. I quickly installed Team Explorer on my machine, not really knowing what it was exactly, just knowing that it was the client piece. After it installed, I went looking for it in my Start menu. Nothing there. Hmmm.....  Later, I discovered that if you install Team Explorer on a machine without Visual Studio 2005, it actually installs a small version of VS 2005 because Team Explorer can't work without it! Since I already had VS 2005 installed, I didn't see anything new in my Start menu.

So, I fired up VS 2005 and started scanning menu items. Sure enough, under the Tools menu was "Connect to Team Foundation Server...". So I did. And it worked!! Honestly, I was floored because I fully expected some permissions problems. Of course the only reason it worked was because I installed it on the server under my domain account. So, I create a new Team Project and then I marvel at all the cool stuff TFS has set up. Stuff like requirements logs, default work items, and a bunch of other goodies I can't remember. The SharePoint portal site it sets up for the project is also cool, with a bunch of graphs and reports that project manager types are sure to eat up.

Moving my project's source control from VSS to TFS was also mostly painless, though it cost me about 20 minutes of aggravation. I wasn't interested in migrating the VSS database to TFS (since we just started and there wasn't much of a version history anyway), I just wanted to drop the VSS bindings and then re-bind to TFS. Remember, I don't like reading instructions, mostly because they're not usually in the format of "this is how you do exactly what you want to do right now" and instead you have to read a dozen sections piecing together the bits that are relevant to your immediate problem. After missing one project in my solution when unbinding from VSS (and having VS 2005 whine when I tried to change source-control plug-ins) and fighting with that for a little while, I eventually got VS 2005 changed over to TFS source control mode. I checked in the entire solution without incident.

The only other problem I had was setting up other developers to use the system. Silly me, when the dialog asks you to select users OR groups, I selected my team's group instead of individual users. That got me nowhere. Other developers got the "you are not a licensed user" message when trying to connect. With the Workgroup edition (and maybe the full edition, I'm not sure), you have to specify individual accounts, not entire security groups. Once I figured that out (many thanks to the great oracle known as the Internet and MSDN blogs), we were off to the races!

All in all, it was a helluva lot of work just to get a better source control system set up. I'm not sure if using something like Subversion would have been easier, but TFS brings so much more to the table. At any rate, transactional check-ins (no more corrupted VSS databases!) and the whole "shelving" concept are worth the effort. I'm sure we'll dive into all the other cool features of TFS as the project progresses.


Vista and Administrative Shares

I am used to remotely connecting to the file system on my computers via administrative shares. On previous versions of Windows, the hard drive volumes were automatically exposed as administrative shares - C$, D$ and so forth. The "$" at the end of a share name makes it invisible to network browsing, but otherwise it is a regular share. As the name implies, administrative shares are only available to those in the Local Administrators security group.

As some of you are aware, I am fighting my way valiantly through a newly installed Vista RC1 system. In fact, the only reason I haven't put XP back on is because I'm too lazy. Several of my peripheral devices (sound card, web cam, video capture card, etc.) either don't work at all, or only work with partial functionality. Well, add administrative shares to that list.

Now, browsing around the system using the usual tools, it would appear as though Vista does indeed set up the normal set of administrative shares. Except you can't connect to them remotely. I checked the new Network Center settings. I checked the firewall settings. I enabled the Administrator account (which is disabled by default in Vista). I even stood on my head while balancing a rock on one foot. Nothing worked.

Back to the great oracle of the Internet. You know, the oracle is a font of knowledge but it's not very forthright with its information. You have to poke it and prod it before it will reveal the answer that you seek. After going down several blind alleys, I found the answer: you have to make an addition to the Windows Registry. What an absolute scourage on the face of personal computing the Registry is. It is such a mess of settings, parameters, and configurations that it should just be summarily executed. I'm not sure if it's any better than the multitude of INI files it was designed to replace.

Anyway, the Registry setting you have to add is a DWORD called "LocalAccountTokenFilterPolicy" in the following location:

HKLM\Software\Microsoft\Windows\CurrentVersion\Policies\System

The value of the new DWORD setting has to be 1.

Thanks to Jimmy Brush, Wugnet.com, and Google (for caching the page 'cause the original search result pointed to gobblygook) for supplying this answer: http://forums.wugnet.com/vista/Problem-hard-drive-ftopict11749.html#49308)



Tracking A Shipment To The Dark Side Of The Moon

Recently, I bought a nice shiny piece of home audio gear on eBay. I bought it from a fellow in the United States, and the next day the item was shipped via UPS. Though I knew it would take a week to get here, I still like to track my packages on the Internet. You might say I'm rather obsessed with tracking packages, actually.

So, I get the tracking number and plug it into the UPS site over the next few days and I'm absolutely tickled with the amount of tracking data that UPS supplies. It looks something like this:

HARRISBURG, PA,  US     11/09/2006     4:02     DEPARTURE SCAN
HARRISBURG, PA,  US     09/09/2006     1:11     ARRIVAL SCAN
STAUNTON, VA,  US   08/09/2006      20:35   DRIVER HAS BAD HEARTBURN, BUT THE PACKAGE MUST BE DELIVERED - BACK ON THE ROAD
STAUNTON, VA,  US   08/09/2006      20:55   DRIVER STOPPED FOR LATE SUPPER
ROANOKE, VA,  US     08/09/2006     20:16     DEPARTURE SCAN
ROANOKE, VA,  US    08/09/2006     19:53     ARRIVAL SCAN
CHARLOTTE, NC, US   08/09/2006   17:53   DRIVER FEELING MUCH BETTER - BACK ON THE ROAD
CHARLOTTE, NC, US   08/09/2006   17:47   DRIVER STOPPED FOR BATHROOM BREAK
WEST COLUMBIA, SC,  US     08/09/2006     15:07     DEPARTURE SCAN
WEST COLUMBIA, SC,  US    08/09/2006     12:28     ARRIVAL SCAN
ATLANTA, GA,  US     08/09/2006     8:20     DEPARTURE SCAN
ATLANTA, GA,  US    08/09/2006     3:11     ARRIVAL SCAN

An amazing amount of detail to be sure. But, when the package finally crosses the border into Canada, the flow of information abrubtly halts. On the evening of the12th, the package is listed as IMPORT SCAN in Lachine, Quebec. There is absolutely NO activity on the 13th. Nothing. Not a peep. I get ready for work on the morning of the 14th and check again - still nothing. My package has been MIA for two days now. A delivery attempt is made around 4:00 PM on the 14th actually, though I'm not home. I'm able to pick it up later that evening, however.

So, what exactly is it about Canada that causes so much trouble for shipment tracking systems? It's like the package has gone to the dark side of the moon and all communications are blocked. It's not just UPS. When I order stuff from Vancouver (clear across the continent) using another shipping company, I get exactly TWO tracking notices - one that it was picked up, and one that it was delivered a week later. Some tracking system.

It would seem as though there is still some work to be done on shipment tracking north of the border.


Vista RC1 - Not Quite There Yet

Microsoft recently released the so-called first "Release Candidate" for the next version of Windows, called "Vista." The geek that I am, I had downloaded previous Vista betas with the intention of installing and using them, but some how I never quite got around to it. However, with the RC1 release, I decided to give it a whirl. My home machine's OS was waaaaaay overdue for a reinstall anyway, so I thought "what the hell."

So, the sucker for technology punishment that I am, I spent this past weekend installing and playing with Microsoft's new wonder-child and all I can think is that Microsoft must not understand the term "Release Candidate" the same way I do. To me, this term means that the software is pretty much done and Microsoft just wants to see what other little bugs might be left lying around in the code. Apparently I'm either incorrect in my understanding of the term, or Microsoft truly does wish to inflict massive pain upon the computing population. Let's just say that I got intimately familiar with the install key over the weekend, as I tried maybe 10 times to install the damn thing. Like I said - a sucker for punishment. But dammit, I WAS going to get the fool thing installed.

Now, I've been following some tech news reports that claim RC1 is a GREAT improvement over past betas. All I can say is that past betas must have been REALLY crappy, 'cause RC1 is, in my opinion, a big steaming pile of digital mess.

It all started when I booted off the Vista RC1 DVD that I burned from MSDN downloads. My machine is a fairly vanilla rig with an older but immensely popular ASUS P4P800 SE motherboard, complete with a 3.2GHz P4 and 2GB of RAM. No problem there, except my two 200GB hard drives are configured in a RAID 0 array using Intel's ICH5R matrix raid chipset. And here is where my tale of woe begins.

Intel's matrix raid storage technology is now several years old, fairly mature, and fairly popular. But Vista has no idea what it is. Booting off the Vista DVD revealed no available hard drive partitions available. Grrrr.....  Okay, no big deal, I have the stupid driver disk that WinXP needed when installing, so maybe that will work (I will say that Vista's storage driver installer is MUCH nicer that WinXPs 1985 vintage user interface when installing this kind of stuff). So, in goes the disk, Vista reads it, highlights the driver, I click "Continue," it reads the disk for a few seconds, then.....KA-BOOM!!!! ... a lovely STOP error (or BSOD error if you prefer) greets me. I haven't had a STOP error in I don't know how many years. It's nice to see that Vista has brought them back - I was starting to miss them.

So, I thought my disk was bad. Vista now lets you load storage drivers off USB drives, so I downloaded the latest drivers from Intel and tried again. This time, the lastest Intel drivers don't support ICH5, only ICH6 and higher. Took me a while to figure that one out. Back to Intel's site, download ICH5 compatible drivers and try again. KA-BOOM! STOP error.

Cursing like mad now, I consult the great oracle of wisdom better known as the Internet. Apparently Vista can't boot off the DVD and load these drivers. You have to start the install from an existing WinXP system, in which case the drivers will load fine, provided they are in the ROOT of the drive on which they reside. Okay, this is just absolutely insane. This is 2006 PEOPLE, not 1986!!!

So, cursing even more now, the install starts now that Vista can see my hard drive. Wee!! It's finally installing! So, Vista claims it is copying files. Seems to be taking an awfully long time. Gets up to 82% complete....and stays there for about 45 minutes. At this point, I break some furniture. WTF!!!!! Now I can't blame this all on Vista - I suspect the media was bad, but still, after 45 minutes the damn installer should now that something is not right. Good grief.

Next attempt, I mount the DVD image in XP, bypassing the media problem. I am really starting to hate the 25-character install key at this point. But this is the last time I have to enter it - Vista finally installs! Hellelujah! Now we're off to the races!!

Whoops! Not so fast. After Vista is installed, it immediately downloads an update to Windows Defender, the new anti-spyware tool. Cool, the network is at least working, or so I thought. I try to surf the web - no go. I go to Microsoft's site - it works fine! But it's the only site on the web that I can get to!!! This is insane - I've never seen this kind of behaviour in 15+ years of working with computers. Consulting the great Internet oracle, I discover that Microsoft FUBAR'd the drivers for my network card and I have to install the old XP drivers to get it to work properly. But once I do, it does work fine.

So I use if for a few minutes. Release Candidate, you say, hmmm? Actually, most of it works fairly well, sort of. Aero glass is neat, but not a killer feature by any stretch. But there are some serious problems still lurking. For one, there is no driver support yet for the world's most popular sound card, the SoundBlaster Audigy 2. Apparently, if you pray to half a dozen tech gods and install some Creative drivers in the right way while standing on your head, you can get 2.1 sound working. I just recently bought a nice set of Logitech Z-5500 5.1 surround speakers. I'm sorry, but I'm not settling for 2.1 sound. Then, I try to install the driver software for my new Logitech QuickCam Fusion. Sorry, that won't work either. Again, praying to the tech gods while standing on your head will get you SOME functionality, but not all. Next, I open up a folder containing some video files. Ooops, I guess I should have known better. Windows Explorer crashes. I stare in disbelief. Release Candidate my ass!! Once I reboot, I try to play an AVI file. The new Windows Media Player just gives me sound, but no video. Come on, guys, you have GOT to be kidding me, right?

The last problem I had could be a deal-breaker. You see, I have an ATI Radeon X800XL video card. When ATI was building these cards, apparently the only cooling fans available were those used for the air intake on jet fighter planes. So this card makes a lot of noise. In XP, this is no problem - you can download ATI Tray Tools and step down the RPM speed of the fan to a decent level. On Vista, ATI Tray Tools barfs. I can't control the fan speed so now my machine sounds like it's getting ready for take off. I didn't even try to capture video off the card yet - that should be an entertaining walk through a digital minefield.

So, if you're thinking of trying out Vista now that it's got "Release Candidate" status, think again. Me, I think I'll wait for Vista SP1 before I test these waters again. Sorry, but I don't really need to experience Windows 95 growing pains again.

 

Grocery Store "Per-Fork" Licensing

This is a funny story from many years ago (and what seems like many lifetimes ago for me) that I thought I would share.

Back in the late 90s, I was working for one of Canada's large grocery store chains in their IT department. I was tasked with setting up their intranet and we naturally needed some kind of database server for the web apps we were going to develop. So, we contacted the company's preferred database vendor at the time for a price quotation on a Windows version of their database server product. We got the quote and it was $5,000 and that sounded OK so the purchase order was drafted up and we just about ready to fax it in. Before we did, however, the vendor called us back. "Um, did you say this was going to be used for an Internet site, or an intranet site?" the sales droid wanted to verify. "An intranet site," I confirmed for him. "So, this will be used by your employees, right?" he continued. "Yes," I confirmed again. "Oh, well, in that case, the price is $50,000. If it was for a public Internet site it would be 5, but an Intranet site is 50." (and no, this wasn't Oracle)

So, I delivered this news to the CIO. He was quite an interesting character this CIO, and he had an intense hatred of software licensing fees. His position was, "they charge me more money, but they don't actually give me anything more for it." I can see his point. So you can just imagine how well he took this news. He ranted. He raved. He pounded his fists. And then he came up with an absolutely brilliant answer to this ruthless practice of arbitrary software licensing fees. As a grocery store, we would start charging people the same way - not just for the food they were buying, but also for how many people were going to eat the food. He called it "per-fork" licensing. Imagine arriving at the checkout. "How many people are going to be eating this turkey, sir?" the cashier would ask you. "What?" you'd respond, taken aback. "You have to pay a licensing fee for each person who is going to eat the turkey, sir," you'd be told. Now, doesn't that just sound absolutely absurd? Naturally that was the point the CIO was trying to make, and there are obvious differences between selling software and selling material goods, but still - I thought it was quite funny.

In-line Search with Internet Explorer

So, Internet Explorer 7 is just about finished, and it's a general all-around improvement. At the very least it brings IE into the 21st century. I think it still lacks a lot in the CSS standards compliance area (making cross-browser sites even HARDER to write in my experience), but that's not really news, now is it?

One of the features lacking in IE7 that Firefox has is inline searching. In Firefox you can press CTRL-F and a small search toolbar opens at the bottom of the browser window. As you type in the search bar, the first matching term is automatically highlighted in the browser window. A small feature to be sure, but it's a helluva lot more convenient than IE's dialog-based search.

Well, now you can have the same thing in IE via an add-on. Actually, these have been around for a little while and I just never knew about them. There are a couple that I know of, thanks to a recent post to the IE Team's Blog. One is called Find As You Type and is posted on Channel 9. The other is called Inline Search for Internet Explorer by Core Services. Both are free, naturally.

So, if you're addicted to Firefox's inline search but you have to use IE from time to time, check these out. I installed Find As You Type and it seems to work well with IE7.

Blu-Ray: First Strike!

I was in the Halifax Future Shop store yesterday for my weekly gawk at tech toys. Though I've been following some of the new format war of HD DVD vs Blu-Ray, I haven't been paying too much attention to it since a) I don't really have a budget to be looking at high-definition DVD players right now, and b) my 6 year old high-def TV doesn't have an HDMI input so I can't watch the damn things anyway (I'll save that rant for another day).

Still, I thought it was interesting to see a rather large Blu-Ray DVD rack occupying prime DVD real-estate next to the "new releases" area of Future Shop. I was quite impressed, actually. And though I didn't look very hard, I did not see any similar display for HD DVD disks. In fact, I didn't see ANY HD DVD disks, though like I said I didn't look exhaustively through the entire DVD section.

So, it would appear as though Blu Ray has drawn first blood in the format wars (in Canada, anyway). Mind you, it's still a pretty weak strike, featuring such smash hits as Stealth and Species. Who the hell decides what catalog titles get released on new formats anyway? I think it must just be a chimpanzee throwing darts at movie posters.

Funny Animated Music Video (from the 80s)

My wife had taped a music video in the 80s called "Just A Cartoon" by John Minnis. I really enjoyed this video - the song is absolutely hilarious. I could never find any reference to it on the Internet, however, so it couldn't have been too popular. Anyway, I finally digitized it off the crappy VHS tape, and while the sound quality is atrocious it's still watchable.

UPDATE (Aug 13, 2011): Seems someone else was successful in posting a better, but still less than ideal version of the video - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f5I6CLFNMkQ

I've posted it on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qJ5_KEQD8uw. Enjoy.  :-)

UPDATE (Feb 26, 2007): Seems my posted video has been pulled down by some mysterious DMCA copyright claim. Though I find it hard to believe that the original copyright holder feels they're going to lose ANY money because of this (and I'm doubtful that the copyright claim submitted to YouTube was legitimate), I am naturally powerless to do anything about it. The DMCA notice I received doesn't reveal the name of the person or company filing the claim, which seems kind of cowardly if you ask me.