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AirPort Express Setup Failure: Is 2012 the Year of the Lemon?

I haven’t been doing well with tech hardware this year. I think I’ve had to return more devices that failed on installation this year than any year before. The last one was just last week, and it looks like I’ve got another one now: a new AirPort Express Wi-Fi device.

This should be simple to set up. In fact, when you plug it in, and open the AirPort Utility, it looks like it’s only going to take one click to do so. I want the device to extend my network, so my Wi-Fi is better at the far end of my house from where my AirPort Extreme is located. But no luck. When I tried, I saw this dialog, informing me of an “unexpected error” (as if any errors are “expected”:

ScreenSnapz002

I tried resetting the AirPort Express to factory settings, a half-dozen times, in fact, but no dice. So this goes back to Amazon for an exchange. I’ve also got a new AirPort Extreme, which I was in no hurry to set up, but which I think I’ll try today, just in case.

This is getting tiring. I’ve spent way too much time trying to get faulty devices to work this year. Last year it was an iMac and a Mac mini, and this year it’s been small devices that have been DOA. Quality control seems to be slipping among many companies, Apple included.

Update: Interestingly, I set up the new AirPort Extreme, and tried setting up the AirPort Express extending its network; it works fine. So is there an incompatibility between the new AirPort Express and the older AirPort Extreme (it’s an 802.11n model, a couple of years old)? If so, there certainly shouldn’t be.

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When Good Customer Service Turns Out to Be Really Bad

We’re all used to bad customer service; too much so, in fact, that we’ve come to accept it as the norm. So when customer service is good, it can be surprising; when it’s really good, it can put a smile on my face.

But sometimes, what seems like good customer service may actually be the contrary. Here’s a tale about a recent experience I had with what seemed to be good customer service, but turned out to be crappy.

I recently decided to try to go paperless. I have to keep ten years of accounting documents, which is a couple of big boxes worth, and I’m planning a move in the coming months; it seemed like a good time to scan all those documents and shred them.

Using information from two books – my fellow Take Control author Joe Kissel’s Take Control of your Paperless Office and David Sparks’ Paperless – I decided to acquire a Fujitsu S1500M scanner. This is a wonderful device, which has a paper-feed, scans both sides of paper you place in it, OCRs it and creates searchable PDFs. I got this last Wednesday, and started using it on Thursday, scanning hundreds of pages of invoices and bank statements. At the end of the day, some of the pages had colored vertical lines on them; nothing too serious, but annoying.

Friday morning, I started scanning more, and the vertical lines showed up after about 30 pages, and were increasingly visible. I called Fujitsu’s tech support number, and spoke with a very helpful woman who asked me to send samples of the bad scans. She got back to me quickly, said that it was a hardware problem, and that Fujitsu would replace the scanner; the next day! This was a good thing, because I had been planning to scan all weekend, and get this project out of the way before Christmas.

Well, the next day came, and no scanner arrived. Monday came, and still nothing. Tuesday was Christmas, and Wednesday there was nothing either. I tried calling Fujitsu a few times on Wednesday, and there was no answer; only a message in German. (I’m in France, and their support center is in Germany.) I sent an email, and got no reply (whereas the week before, I got replies in less than a half hour.) Thursday morning – today – I tried calling again, and there was still no answer.

I had bought this scanner from Apple’s online store*, and I called them and explained what happened. They immediately set up a replacement, though, unfortunately, it may take a week for it to come. But the person was very helpful and understanding, and I frankly feel a lot more comfortable working with the Apple Store than with a vendor directly; they have a lot more interest in keeping customers happy (especially since I buy most of my Apple products from them directly).

So what happened? What seemed to be top-notch customer service was just pretend? Did they really intend to send me the scanner the next day? I did get an email from DHL confirming that it was sent, but with no tracking number, I have no idea when it was sent, or when the delivery was scheduled. The fact that Fujitsu’s tech support team seems to be on vacation for the holidays is inadmissible; I don’t expect them to work on Christmas day, of course, but taking a week off – if that’s indeed the case – seems to suggest they only care about their customers when it’s convenient for them.

I like the scanner; it’s very efficient, and it’s going to save me a lot of time. And I’m sure the problem I have is not a common one. But I’ll think twice before buying anything else from Fujitsu, because of what they put me through.

* I would have bought the scanner from Amazon, and gotten next-day delivery, but it’s about €30 more expensive there. I guess I should have paid more, because Amazon is very efficient regarding returns and replacements.

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On the Subject of “Seriously” Listening to Music

Via the Twittersphere, I became aware of an article by composer Gabriel Kahane about Spotify, digital music, and how we listen now. Mr. Kahane – who I had never heard of before today, and who’s biography touts him as a “peerless musical polymath” – complains that people are no longer listening to music seriously. He says:

Over on the Twitter, there’s been a flurry of discussion as to whether Spotify is an improvement over illegally downloaded music or if it’s basically the same thing. I’d like to propose a third stream: that the problem we face is not one of economics, but of the spiritual nature of how consume music. That is to say: what Spotify and illegally downloaded music have in common is that they both spiritually devalue music by making a surfeit of it too accessible.

and goes on to speak of:

the gluttony of 21st-century consumers who don’t know when to stop downloading and start listening.

This is an interesting point, yet one that is deeply flawed. Mr. Kahane is claiming that people no longer know how to listen seriously to music; that their way of listening is somehow wrong or deficient. It is the usual complaint of the elite cultural world dissing the plebes. My art is good, but you have to spend time to understand it; the art you like is crap because you’re unable to take the time to appreciate it.

Now, I’m one of those people who is willing to take time to discover art (I’ll not limit myself here to simply music). I very much like the music of Morton Feldman, for whom time is a key feature of his works, as some of them stretch on for hours. I’m a fan of James Joyce, and have read Finnegans Wake from cover to cover, with books of annotations to help me get through it. I’m a big fan of Henry James, perhaps one of the slowest novelists in the English language, and one who wrote the most. I’ve read Proust, in toto, first once in English, then twice in French. And I have a passion for Ralph Waldo Emerson, and am currently reading the 16 volumes of his journals, to be followed by the 10 volumes of his letters. So I think I’m one of those who can and will take time when it’s necessary. (Have a look at the Some of My Favorite Things list in the sidebar to the right to see some of my other obscure interests; you’ll have to scroll down a bit.)

Mr. Kahane claims that, in the past, when we spent $15 on a CD, “there was an economic imperative of sorts to grow to like it,” and says that “Nowadays, the only records that people seem to give second chances after an initial reaction of indifference or dislike are those given the stamp of approval by select tastemakers in the blogosphere.”

Poor Mr. Kahane. Perhaps he’s reacting to poor sales of his own recordings, which may not be the darlings of the “blogosphere.” He feels that, in the future, “listeners of the world simply bounce around from one immediately satisfying songlet to another, and anything that is truly visionary/difficult/new will probably get tossed aside.” What he ignores is that, for decades, this is exactly what most music listeners have done. It’s something called “radio,” and people switch stations whenever they come across a tune they don’t like.

I’m a broad listener, rather than a deep one. I have lots of CDs – thousands, in fact – and lots of music that I’ve bought by download. I write reviews of classical music, and I’m a fan of many kinds of music, from the Grateful Dead to Bob Dylan, from piano jazz to minimalism; from German lieder to Renaissance vocal music. It’s true that I don’t listen to a given disc as often as I used to – it’s simply mathematical. One thing I like to do is find those works that really move me and get multiple recordings of them, to really dig into them and hear what different performers have to say. (One example of that is Charles Ives’ Concord Sonata, of which I have some 15 recordings. If you’re not familiar with that work, I recommend this recent recording by Jeremy Denk.) I’m often intrigued by new music, though I don’t pay as much attention to pop and rock as I did in the past, focusing much more of my time on classical works that I am unfamiliar with.

But does this make me a non-serious listener? In any case, who is Mr. Kahane to judge whether any listener meets his criteria for seriousness? The man comes off as a snob with a grudge, and saying that the world doesn’t appreciate Art is nothing new.

More people are discovering more music than ever before. Mr. Kahane should be delighted that his music, rather than being available only in a handful of downtown record stores, is accessible to anyone with an Internet connection, anywhere in the world. The flip side of this availability is, naturally, that those who are really interested in music will listen to more music, hence listen to any given work less. But would it be better that people only have a small selection to choose from, one that is “curated” by the big record store chains?

I think the number of people who are interested in discovering “new” music is probably not decreasing; if anything, it’s the contrary. Andy Doe, writing on Twitter, made a valid comment: “To argue that streaming services are bad for serious listening is like claiming that public libraries are bad for literacy.”

Mr. Kahane, the philistines are at the gates; just as they always have been.

Update: Mr. Kahane replied to my rebuttal to his post by adding an addendum to it which is a rebuttal to mine. (Yes, terrible syntax…) I will admit that, while I had no attention of being “nasty,” the use of the word “serious” in the conclusion is what irked me most about his post. It’s clear that this was not Mr. Kahane’s intention, and I take note of that.

Mr. Kahane says:

When I was a freshman in college, my classmates and I developed a habit of walking to the hulking tower records at the corner of, I think it was Mass Ave and Newbury. We would spend a good deal of time walking amongst the oppressively lit bins and leave with a disc or two or three. I’m not going to belabor the oft-recounted ritual of unwrapping, reading the liner notes, the aura-of-the-thing to quote Benjamin. Like so many kids of my generation and generations before it, I felt an emotional rush from these acts, and from the assemblage of a collection.

While he is much younger than I, Mr. Kahane does point out the affective nature of choosing and purchasing music, which, I will agree, has gone away as music has become dematerialized. Several years of my life were chronicled in Nick Horby’s High Fidelity, when I hung out in a record store in Queens after coming home from work, with a handful of other music fans, and then went to one or another person’s apartment to listen to new LPs. (The difference in our ages is such that I was doing this around the time Mr. Kahane was in diapers.) And, yes, there was something special about it. But the difference in that time and now is partly due to a change in age, and a growth in the size of my music collection, not just the difference in music being available by download.

No matter, I dislike thinking that the “good old days” were better. They were, in some ways, but in others they were not. Back in the late 70s, it would have been hard to find more than a couple of recordings of, say, Mahler’s symphonies, Schubert’s lieder, or Beethoven’s string quartets. Now, one can find many of them, quite easily, and at much lower prices. Should we lament the fact that music is cheaper, which may lead to some of us buying more?

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On the Subject of Applause in Classical Recordings

I recently listened to Stephen Hough and Andrew Litton’s recordings of Rachmaninov’s piano concertos. A spine-tingling performance of these four great works, but which, at the end of each one, was destroyed by loud and buoyant applause, where silence would have been truly golden. These recordings were, of course, recorded live, and it’s hard to keep the audience from coughing or making other noises, but the applause is so disturbing that I won’t be listening to these recordings again. I even tried to edit out the applause, using Fission, but as you can see below, the final reverberation of the orchestra and piano do not fade out before the applause begins. (The red line connected to the play head shows where the two overlap.)



I’ve long hated applause on classical recordings; it bothers me less on live recordings of, say, jazz or rock. This is certainly subjective, but classical recordings seem especially sensitive to the sudden burst of audience frenzy. Many classical works end with a bang – the Rachmaninov concertos certainly don’t fade out – and the silence that follows them is like a blank page at the end of a book. In some cases, there is a gap between the end of the music and the beginning of the overly raucous idolatry, and in such cases, it is simple to edit it out. But in recordings like these, it’s simply not possible; in my opinion, that applause is too jarring to want to listen to them. (My intention here is not to single out this specific recording, but it’s an example of a number of such classical releases.)

It’s not easy to keep an audience quiet. However, it is possible. Just tell them that the work is being recorded, and ask them to wait a few seconds before applauding. A recent video release of András Schiff playing Bach’s French Suites is interesting is the fact that Schiff plays all six suites with no applause following individual works, and the only applause is after he has completed the cycle. This was clearly not something the audience came up with on their own; they were asked to do this.

Another thing to do with classical recordings is somehow make sure that the guy who yells “BRAVO!!!!” at the top of his lungs at the end of every work is not sold a ticket. This guy gets around; he’s on pretty much every recording I know of that has applause, and I’ve attended a good many concerts where he has been in the audience.

Applause has its place. It is a recognition of a wonderful musical experience. People sit in a concert hall for an hour or two, enraptured by music, and want to say “thank you.” But including it on recordings is just unmusical. I won’t listen to such recordings, unless I can remove the applause.

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Spotify and Bootleg Recordings

Spotify, and other streaming services, are supposed to offer legal “alternatives” to file sharing. Yet are they fully legal themselves? Search briefly for some of my favorite non-classical artists, I came across a number of bootleg recordings: the first two albums shown when you look for music by the Grateful Dead, and the first two albums listed by Bob Dylan. I haven’t searched too many artists to see what other bootlegs are in the Spotify collection, but the presence of any bootlegs makes me question how such a service can claim to be honest.



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Developers Outsource Support to Google Groups: Fail

Yesterday, I bought TaskPaper, a simple to-do list manage from the Mac App Store. I had a reproducible crashing issue, and wanted to contact support. But support is only available via Google Groups. So, I had to post this review on the Mac App Store, in hopes I would get a reply.

I shouldn’t have to write a review to get support, but more and more developers are “outsourcing” their support to Google Groups these days.

I bought the app yesterday, seeing that it was on sale for $5. It’s well worth that, even more, but not $30. It’s a practical, simple tool, which, for me to-do list needs, is ideal. (I have OmniFocus, but only use it for big projects where lots of people are involved.)

But I have a problem: whenever I press Command-Shift-Return, the program crashes. So I went to the “Support” page and found that I could post a message to Google Groups. But that message was rejected, because, apparently, I have to be a member of that group. I don’t want to be a member of any Google group, so this means that, essentially, I can’t get support.

I’ve had this problem with other apps, and, while I can understand developers using free (well, “suck up user data and monetize it” support solutions, I think it’s a serious failure in serving customers. I won’t use apps if I know they only offer support like this, because it isn’t the way I expect to get support.

Hence this review. I’m sure the developer reads the reviews here, and may even attempt to contact me; he’ll have no trouble finding me if he does so. But developers should be aware that the free Google system doesn’t always work.

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Home Theater, “HD” Audio, and What I Don’t Understand

I find the whole home theater thing a huge frustration. The number of cables I have to use to connect a blu-ray player, an Apple TV and a satellite TV box is astounding. The amount of time I had to spend to set everything up and getting it working correctly is also far more than it takes to set up a new computer. But I’m getting increasingly confused. Something happened recently, and I can’t figure out what is going on.

I bought a blu-ray player for my son’s birthday in October. It was a Sony, and there was a promotion through which I sent in a proof of purchase and got three free movies on blu-ray. Nothing extraordinary, but one of them (Gran Torino) was a movie that I had wanted to see. I’ve noticed since that, with all three movies, I can only get stereo sound; I don’t get any kind of surround sound. The movies have sound in either Dolby TrueHD or DTS-HD, and, as far as I can tell from my documentation, my blu-ray player (bought a year ago) supports these formats. However, it seems that they only support the multi-channel audio through HDMI.

My amp – also a Sony – doesn’t seem to work with audio coming over HDMI, so I have everything going in digitally via co-axial cable or Toslink. Because of this, if I understand correctly, I can only get stereo sound with blu-ray disks. (My amp does seem to recognize that it’s getting 6 channels, displaying, for example, “DTS 3/2.1″ on its LCD when the sound starts.) Does this mean that my amp – about three years old – is already obsolete? I’m certainly not going to buy any more blu-ray discs if I only get stereo sound; the picture quality is better than DVD, but not by that much (here in France, DVDs are 576 px, compared to 480 in the US).

What irks me most, though, is that these new patented sound formats are forcing people to upgrade their equipment to be able to use new media. All DVDs have options between stereo and 5.1 sound; why don’t these blu-ray discs offer another 5.1 sound format that is compatible with older devices? Also, as I look at new Sony AV amps, I see that not all of them support these “HD” formats, and one has to go to a fairly high price to get such support.

I’m quite confused. Why are blu-rays being sold that provide an inferior sound experience? I only have a few – a box set of Band of Brothers, which has 5.1 sound that I can here, some classical music DVDs, which all have 5.1 sound options that work for me, and these three new ones that I got for free.

If anyone could help me better understand why I’m not able to get decent sound, I’d appreciate it.

Follow-up: After a few hours searching, I came across a forum post discussing a solution to the same problem. I reset the sound fields on my amp (whatever that means), and it is now playing the 5.1 track. In another forum, I saw the following:

If a disc has a TrueHD track it has to also contain a DD 5.1 track too. This can be either visible on the menus or hidden so it looks like there isn’t one. Either way the player will simply use the DD 5.1 track for legacy outputs, it doesn’t down-convert.

So apparently there is backwards compatibility, even though it’s not clearly indicated on the discs’ boxes.

Here are the devices I have. Should anyone search via Google for the same issue, this might help them find a solution. The blu-ray player is a Sony BDP-S360, and the amp is a Sony HT-DDW890.

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A Poorly Conceived Download Process: VMware Fusion

I run VMware Fusion occasionally on my Mac, for the few Windows programs (mostly go programs) that interest me. Today, the company released an update for this program, and I tried to use the built-in auto-updater. It downloaded the update (with no indication of how big the update was, and no progress bar showing how much was being downloaded), then the update failed. Of course, there was no information that helped me understand why it failed, so I tried again. Failed again.

I then went to the dreaded VMware web site. Unlike other sites where you can simply click a download link to get software, VMware is very, very complex. First, you have to register (something I’d already done in the past for a previous update problem). Then you have to sign in, which didn’t work this morning; the password in my keychain didn’t seem to be correct. So I had to reset my password.

Finally, you get to a download page, where you have a choice of two versions: one, at around 150 MB, which is just Fusion, and another, at 450 MB, which includes a “free” trial to a Windows antivirus package. I chose the smaller one. Clicked Download. Then had to agree to 2,000 words of legalese, which I had already agreed to when I first launched the product, and when I had downloaded a previous version from their site. Finally, it started downloading.

Why does a company see the need for such a complex process just to get a new copy of software? To be honest, this is the only software I use where it’s such a hassle to get an update. Don’t they want to make things easier for their customers?

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