Total Cuteness

It’s that time again … I was reviewing photos and realized that the world needs more NaNi. Here she is!

NaNi readies herself for a Christmas ambush with David’s new AirZooka.

NaNi enjoys the Manchester Regional FIRST Robotics competition.

NaNi demonstrates her combat stance.


NaNi during a weight training session.

NaNi demonstrates her Xbox 360 Halo 3 ‘Tude.

Oh, here’s NaNi with our other kids. Meh.

Belittled by PETCO: A Bad Customer Experience

Two weeks ago, Isaac spent some of his savings on purchasing a new tarantula, to replace Chandan, one that had died after about 3.5 years in our care. (The tarantula was fully grown when we purchased it, so we expect the death was due to old age, as these Chilean spiders, typically sold in pet shops, live only to 5-8 moltings, and she had molted thrice, about once a year, while we had her.)

However, the new tarantula did not fare so well. After a week, Isaac noted that she had some trouble climbing, within another week she was dead.

PETCO issues a 15-day guarantee on "companion animals" they sell, so we headed back to PETCO to see if we could get an exchange. To prove to them that we had adequate and appropriate housing, we brought the large plastic shoebox type storage container (about 2.5 gallons in volume) containing the spider.

That is where the trouble started.

The attendant examined the box, and said, “You’ve used fertilized potting soil; it looks like you killed it.”

(For the record, we did use potting soil. Potting soil often contains Styrofoam, perlite, or vermiculite to improve aeration and water retention. In this case, our soil contained perlite, which is completely harmless. Of course, some potting soils, even organic ones, contain fertilizers and insecticides, but I was very careful to avoid selecting one of those.)

“No, I replied carefully, "we used sterilized potting soil with no chemical additives. You must understand we had a tarantula living for nearly four years in exactly these conditions, and it was an adult when we bought it."

Then he seemed to express concern over the container. I quickly pointed out, "The container is not airtight,” which, after some seemed to satisfy him.

By this time I was seething, although outwardly completely controlling my anger. We are not idiots. We have been keeping tarantulas for four years now. Chandan, the one who died several months ago, exhibited no problems of any kind during her life. I even keep a tarantula (named after one of our VPs) at my office. I strongly resented the immediate and obvious blaming, and felt even worse because essentially everything I said was ignored, even when I was correct.

Reluctantly, the clerk issued me a refund, and we headed off to the reptile and fish department, which houses tarantulas and such. The fish display featured a wall of Betas, all in tiny, nonaerated plastic containers. Great way to take care of those fish!

And there we waited. And waited. And waited. Isaac repeatedly spoke to the staff, who assured us they would be “right with us.” This went on for about 30 minutes. (Thankfully I’d brought a book to read.)

Finally, the “spider guy” came out. He claimed the soil contained “chemical crystals” that kill insects. I explained the reality to him, which he clearly didn’t accept, and recommended peat instead. He also claimed we had told him we would be keeping the tarantula in a 10-gallon aquarium, which, we, of course had not, and he wondered, “How do you expect to regulate the temperature in a plastic container?” (I did not want to go into physics with him.)

Initially and over the years, we’ve done most of our research on tarantula care via the Internet, from a variety of sources. If we go the experts, the American Tarantula Society, we can see what their articles and care guides say:

Pet Pals sold in pet shops, work well for many species. Many plastic and glass containers can be adapted for tarantula homes.

They also recommend topsoil or potting soil as the ideal substrate for tarantulas. Peat was only second-best.

Good air circulation in a container has been thought by some in the past to be a requirement, however, serious doubt has been cast on this idea in the last few years. The up side is good air circulation may prevent stagnant conditions with very high humidity that can easily breed mold, fungi, bacteria, nematodes and mites.

The clerk said he might not sell us another tarantula, and that he would have to talk to the other clerk and check. After a few minutes, he returned, and informed us that we could buy a replacement tarantula, but they would not provide a guarantee this time. We paid for the new tarantula with our refund money, and left.

Over the week I triple-checked our information. The ATS agreed with our care policies completely, contrary to the details the PETCO personnel provided. So, the next weekend, I went back to the store and spoke with the manager. I told him that I understood people do not typically do the research into caring for exotics, but that we were experienced tarantula owners who were thorough about what we were doing. I explained that we were very dissatisfied with our treatment, and pointed out where the ATS recommendations were contrary to the store’s advice.

He apologized for how we were treated, and said he had all our information, and that he would have the regional controller call us.

We’re still waiting for the call …

But at least the new tarantula is doing well.

Nine 11 Boxes Later: Comcast TiVo Service

When I learned that Comcast was finally rolling out it’s long-delayed TiVo service, I was thrilled. I had seen the benefits of TiVo via several friends, but had avoided buying my own TiVo box because the HD versions are so expensive. I had been moderately disappointed in Comcast’s home-grown DVR service (which sported a clunky user interface and a mere 12 hours of nonupgradeable high-definition recording capacity).

We counted down the days until the Comcast installer would arrive to upgrade our two cable boxes. To our surprise, rather than merely a firmware update, the installer provided two brand new Motorola DCH3416 boxes, complete with 160 GB of storage and a wonderfully designed TiVo remote.

The cable guy came out mid-day on a Friday, and claims he tested everything before he left, but by the time I got home a few hours later, neither TiVo box was working correctly. The downstairs box had staccato sound, the upstairs box simply displayed the loading screen and never got beyond it. Tech support had the cable guy call us back, and he was actually willing to drop his kids off and come back out to try to fix the boxes.

Unfortunately, what we needed were replacement boxes, and he didn’t have two more of the DCH3416s, so we had to wait until Monday and another technician visit. (The technician was supposed to arrange for his boss to handle things on Saturday, but this never happened; on Monday Comcast had no record of anything like that being set up.)

In talking to customer support and in subsequent visits from the on-site troubleshooters/installers, it became clear that not much information had been propagated to the installers about how to set up these boxes or keep them working. One installer explained that in his training for the new cable box, the cable box was broken, so they had to learn from a PowerPoint presentation on the setup instead.

The downstairs new box worked for a few days, and then quit, going into an infinite booting cycle which Comcast guys call the “Crazy Eights,” because for part of the boot-up, the entire display shows all the segments, like in the photo above. Comcast replaced it the box. We learned that updates to the program guide or updates to the firmware can cause this problem, meaning the software hadn’t been quite ready to roll out, from a QA perspective.

So far, we are on our ninth cable box. Other than the sound problem exhibited, most of the time the issue was the “Crazy Eights,” although once the downstairs box simply decided it wasn’t going to record anything. Twice the boxes of have recoverable, but at the cost of reinstalling the firmware, which has to be initiated by an on-site tech. (This is apparently an evidence of improvement—until a week ago, such a feat was apparently impossible.) Of course, once you have to exchange the box, all one’s saved programming goes away as well. Likewise, firmware reinstalls seem to wipe out all previously recorded video and settings.

The boxes have dual tuners, but the software doesn’t take advantage of them correctly. If one is watching one program, a confirmation dialog requests switching channels to record a scheduled or suggested recording. Hey, it has two tuners. Perhaps the one not in use could be used for the recording? I had a similar problem with two recordings that started an hour apart which I had set to run one minute over; the second recording never happened.

There’s no 5.1 digital surround output. We get 48 MHz PCM output that’s in Dolby Surround (stereo) only. This is expected to be fixed in a future software update, but far more critical fixes need to go in first.

TiVo users will be wondering about TiVo Desktop, the software that lets one use a computer on the network to transfer shows, program the TiVo, and even move recorded programs from TiVo to TiVo or burn them onto DVDs … although it is not currently possible to use it, the powers that be at Comcast are actually considering enabling it, because so many customers have requested it. (Like the regular Comcast DVR box, the DCH3416 sports FireWire, eSATA, USB, and network ports. Like the regular Comcast DVR, they are all currently disabled, except maybe the FireWire port which will only output what is currently playing—and we only get that because the FCC mandates it.)

Other than the problems with the boxes self-destructing at irregular but rapid intervals, I couldn’t be happier with the service, especially at only an extra $3 a month. The 160GB hard drive give us enough storage space. The TiVo user experience is much better than the Comcast DVR software, akin to the difference between the Hotmail and GMail. Programming is rapid and easy, and navigation is a dream. In fact, the overall user experience is good enough that I’ve kept having Comcast replace the boxes rather than go back to the old Comcast DVR. Even the HD image quality seems to have improved. (I do wish the menu response were a little faster, but I believe this is normal for such devices.)

A software update is due out on April 1, that should correct the “Crazy Eights” and approximately 40 other bugs, but will not yet provide 5.1 digital sound. I hope our current box lasts until then!

Addendum: The downstairs box went into “Crazy Eight” mode on Friday. So now we are up to 10 boxes.

Updates at last!

April 1 came, and of course required a visit from yet another Cable installer. With the update, our box went into a mode where the TiVo software itself wouldn’t work, although we could at least change channels.

The technician was actually upset, because he believed he could reset our box with a little bit of help from ATS, but they wouldn’t work with him, so he had to swap it out. He swapped the box, and the downstairs one, and updated them both with the new code.

The improvements are significant: The menus respond about twice as fast. The record light illuminates on the box when something is recording. Dolby 5.1 is back (which we did not expect yet). I even think both tuners actually record (we have not tested that yet). So far both boxes are working fine.

The technician said that an update planned in about a month will further improve the menu response time, which is now reasonable, but was painfully slow before. That’s the beauty of Java: “Write once; run really slowly everywhere.”

2008 as Seen from 1968

“The single most important item in 2008 households is the computer.”

In 2008, Mechanix Illustrated prognosticated on what life would be like 40 years later. Some of the predications are eerily accurate, some may be seen in another 40 years, and as for others, we can only hope. Take a look!

(While I’m working on 3 other relatively detailed posts, I figured I’d provide something to chew on to prove I’m still alive. For the record, I was born in 1968.)

I Told You I Was 1337!

I told you I was 1337, as this compilation screen shot shows.

I grabbed this screen shot at work today. Every developer wants to write 1337 code, but I think this proves that I’m doing it.