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December 2006
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February 2007

Thermostats and electric fireplaces

A while back I wrote about how a new wireless thermostat has really improved the comfort (both heating and cooling) in my loft. I noticed today that Smarthome has a sale on the thermostat, so read my original message, and if you're interested in giving it a try you can save 30 dollars if you act fast.

Replacing a thermostat is really quite easy, and to make it even simpler there's a brief photo-tutorial that walks you through the process. It applies to any type of thermostat you might buy, so its worth a look no matter which direction you go.

Finally, I want to point out a nice free-standing electric fireplace. Some good friends of mine have two of these units, and they're quite pleased with the results. (They are available in black and grey, and are also currently on sale.) I can attest to how well they work, too, having spent a good chunk of time enjoying their warmth on a not-so-sunny sun porch. As for products that I actually live with, my wall-mounted convection heaters are doing just fine so far.

Powerseed's power source

I've been using a Powerseed for over a year now, albeit it not in the capacity for which its intended, and now its battery is dead. It's a lovely little pod-like thing, with no obvious way to replace the battery, so I checked their website. To my chagrin, it said to send the unit back with $10 to have a new one installed. That's about the price of getting a new battery in a watch, so it's not totally unreasonable, but my DYI pride would be hurt in the process.

So, I dove in and discovered that you can carefully pry the Powerseed open with a flat edge, working slowly around all of the edges, until the top clears the little mounting posts. Be careful that you keep the small, rubber button-platform when the halves separate. Then, using a small screwdriver, you can scoot the dead battery from its holder and replace it yourself. It takes a standard CR2032 battery that's readily available for hearing aids and the like. Snap it back together, and you're back in business. That's $3 and 7 minutes of your time, versus $10, a trip to the post office, and waiting several days.

Also, if you find that your Powerseed gets accidentally turned on in your pocket, you can remove the bottom button-platform while changing the battery. After you do this, you'll need a pen or something similar to control the unit, but it'll never come on accidentally again.

Expo news for home automators

With Macworld Expo 2007 opening tomorrow, I'm starting this place to keep track of product announcements of interest to home security and automation enthusiasts. I'm starting out with just two, but I'll update this as more come to my attention. If you're aware of any, please leave a comment.

Indigo 2.0
The latest version of Perceptive Automation's home automation software goes gold with a new client-server architecture, enhanced support for Insteon devices, irrigation systems, Universal binary, and a new "control pages" features for building AJAX-based web sites to control your home. Upgrade ($90) and introductory pricing ($180) is available at their website. Macworld Booth: N4234-6

Phone Valet 5
This home and small business phone automation package adds several new features including unlimited voice call trees, expanded Address Book integration, and something called "CCT". That's "Call Completion Technology," a patented approach to ensuring that incoming calls are smoothly directed to a live person or voice mail, if no one is available to answer. See their website for details. Macworld Booth: S1912

Toast 8
OK, it's not exactly related to home automation, but there's such a big overlap with home theatre geeks that I'm going to include it anyway. Roxio Toast 8 Titanium includes TiVoToGo functionality. Finally, Mac users can transfer recorded shows to their iPod, Mac, or burn them on DVD. There are plenty of other new features, but for me, this is the only one that matters. More details at their website. Macworld Booth: 314

HP Tech Support Horror Story

Although I've never written about it, I have been, until this week, quite happy with my HP OfficeJet 7410 printer-fax-copier. Its built-in WiFi, sheet feeder, and duplex printing ability fits into our dual home-office situation quite well.

A few days ago I wrote about a problem I was having with duplex (two-sided) printing. It took nearly 6 hours of time to resolve the problem, most of that dealing with the clueless tech support personnel at HP.

At first, I thought that a driver update had broken two-sided printing. After following that trail for about 3 hours by myself--trying to find and reinstall the old version of the drivers proved impossible thanks to HP's use of the "Vise" installer--I eventually realized that none of my computers, even the Windows machines, could print correctly.

You'd think the fact that the failure occurred on several computers simultaneously would be an obvious sign that the printer has failed, right? The first tech support person I talked to agreed, and diagnosed that the duplexer unit on the printer had failed. So, they sent me a new duplexer accessory. It arrived the next day, but did not resolve the problem.

When I called again, despite my existing case, the representative at "HP Total Care" insisted we start from square one and told me that I needed to reinstall my printer drivers. I have, of course, already tried that, and I explained that multiple computers could not properly print, and I refused to waste any more time jumping through nonsensical hoops. While I was on-hold waiting for his supervisor, I reinstalled the Windows drivers anyway, since I had plenty of time to wait.

The supervisor told me that I "must comply with the troubleshooting steps or I would be ineligible for support," then passed me back to another first-line tech. I told the tech that I had complied while holding, and then he had me change completely unrelated options using the printer's front panel, such as the fax and copy settings. It was clear that his troubleshooting script didn't match the reality of my printer when he kept telling me to press menu option number 5, which is Cancel, so we wasted even more time than necessary with these steps.

Eventually, I asked to talk to a second-level tech support rep, but that was a mistake. Again, he insisted that I reinstall the printer drivers (yet again!), and when I told him that neither a Mac nor a PC could print correctly he gave me a 30 second rant about how Macs were "completely different" and "outside the realm of this discussion." He then offered to take control of my Windows computer remotely and re-install the drivers for me using a "special procedure." When I refused to allow him access to my network, and said I wanted him to send me a replacement printer under the "Total Care" package that I paid for, he said that he would but that if the problem persisted it would not be covered under warranty. Because of my refusal to kowtow to their voodoo procedures.

I asked to speak to his supervisor. After a few minutes the second-level tech came back on the phone and said he would send me the replacement. When I asked about him voiding my "Total Care" agreement, he said to "forget that I said that."

The replacement printer arrived. And, of course, it completely resolved the problem. What should have been a simple process resulted in a several hours of phone calls and a very frustrated customer due to the failure of HP's tech support to listen, use a little common sense, and go "off script" to solve a problem. While I still like the printer, I'm no longer a satisfied customer, and I certainly can't recommend HP Support to anyone who isn't knowledgeable enough to see through their nonsense and demand service from their bordering-on-rude personnel.

Teaching Office to kids is criminal

One of the arguments used against purchasing anything but Windows-based computers for students is that they should learn how to use the tools that run the business world. I consider this a completely specious argument; students should learn about computing in general, not Window specifically. For most school-age students, the software they're using today will decidedly not be current when they reach the workforce.

In an article about the XO Computer, an inexpensive third-world laptop, Nicholas Negroponte addresses a similar concern about teaching Microsoft Office, but does it so much more eloquently than I:

"In fact, one of the saddest but most common conditions in elementary school computer labs (when they exist in the developing world), is the children are being trained to use Word, Excel and PowerPoint," Negroponte wrote in an e-mail interview. "I consider that criminal, because children should be making things, communicating, exploring, sharing."

I would extend the observation to world-wide, not just developing countries. Students need to learn how to write, how to give presentations, and how to logically process numbers in tabular arrangement. That's not the same as "using Word, PowerPoint, and Excel," which are but single tools to achieve the broader goals.