Monday, July 10, 2006

Cell Phone Angst

What is it that spurs people to get a cell phone? In our case, it was separation anxiety. More precisely, it was my wife's concern over losing our daughter to School.

As the dutiful family provider, I made sure that this new vital piece of technology was in our hands and working properly before the first day of school.

And I did a great job. I had come across a great online deal from AT&T Wireless back in 2001. I ordered the phone and service sometime during Labor Day weekend and received the phone on Tuesday. I was impressed with this ... er ... impressive service.

The only problem was that AT&T didn't own any base stations in our area. Nor did they have any stores nearby. And customer service was reluctant to give us the address of the nearest base station, perhaps as a security policy. So activating the phone was tricky. Eventually, I drove through various towns until I happened to cross into home territory. When the phone finally connected, it registered itself on the network, and I was able to use it.

The phone worked extremely well in our home, and I saved lots of money on long distance by using the cell phone instead of the land line. I liked the idea of calling my wife from the supermarket to ask her whether Land-o-Lakes Swiss Cheese would be okay to substitute for Finlandia Swiss. Unfortunately, there was no signal at our daughter's school and at our church.

The phone's battery out-lasted the contract, but it did fail. Rather than buy a new phone or get an upgrade, I canceled the service and got a new plan, along with a new free phone. Even though the separation anxiety was gone, the cell phone had become indispensable, at least to my wife.

Eventually, AT&T was forced to give up its wireless service. SBC's Cingular service took over. By then our contract had already expired. But we continued with the new phone and the same service on a month-to-month basis.

By this time, my wife was using the phone as a pager for her new on-call job. She was not hesitant to point out its short-comings, the biggest of which was that she couldn't get a signal inside certain buildings. But it gave her some freedom away from home and allowed her to respond to work calls while gardening or walking the dog.

One day in May, her work place complained that when they called the cell phone, they got a message that the number was not in service. When I called Cingular, they traced the problem to a billing issue. Specifically, the credit card that they were charging to every month had expired. Rather than notify us, they did the sensible thing and shutdown the service. (That's sarcasm, BTW.) After I pointed out that they should've called us before shutting off the service (which is used to provide on-call medical service) I was told that I wouldn't need to pay the $25 reinstatement fee.

So with that behind us and the contract expired, we had only to wait for the battery to fail on this new phone. I was intrigued when Cingular (now owned by AT&T) sent us a upgrade offer. We could replace the phone and increase from 120 to 400 minutes for a one-time fee of only $19.99, probably less than the cost of a new battery. I could see the catch, though. They were hoping the new phone's additional features would cause us to use the service more. The new phone was capable of Internet access and could do IM, both of which require premium service.

It was Independence Day weekend. As I mulled this offer over, my wife's work place called our land line number to tell us that they couldn't connect to the cell phone. Instead of ringing, they would get our voice mailbox, as if the phone was turned off or out-of-range. At first I thought that maybe the voice mailbox was configured to intercept the call. But after navigating the voice mail menus, I couldn't find a problem.

Customer service remarked that there were service problems in our area. They expected that it would be cleared up within 24 hours. But in order to add our account to the list of the ones needing service, I had to give them three phone numbers that failed to ring the cell phone. Well, the work place was One. And our land line was Two. Cingular also tried (and failed) to ring the cell phone. Could they be Three? No. I was supposed to call someone right away and ask them to call me back. On a lovely summer Saturday afternoon. On Independence Day weekend.

The one person I was able to reach directly couldn't actually hear me because of all the noise at the pool. I gave Cingular the number anyway.

After twenty-four hours, the problem still was not fixed. I encouraged my wife to turn her hostility away from me and direct it instead at Cingular. They placated her by telling her it would be fixed on July 5.

On July 5, she called again. This time they explain that the problem is with the phone. It's obsolete. "How old is that thing, anyway?" they ask, oblivious of the fact that they gave it to us less than three years ago. We would need a new phone, and it just so happens that we have an upgrade offer to take advantage of. Isn't that nice? (More sarcasm.)

We complained about the coercive tactics used to get us to upgrade, which pissed off the customer service clerk and got us a reduced upgrade fee. If it were up to me, I'd've canceled the service. But my wife has been brainwashed into thinking that she cannot live without a cell phone.

The new phone, BTW, has only a few ring tones, two wallpaper images, and no free games (other than demos). Of course we're welcome to buy additional content. This is the epitome of progress -- develop new ways of getting more money from the customer.

Outlook "Signature Code" Added

Back in June of 2005, I bragged about how I spent a few hours to write Outlook VBA code that eliminates a few keystrokes. I had a request for that code a few days ago, so I decided to edit that post to add the code. This link will take you to the edited post.

I should point out that I no longer use that code. I had lost it when my work computer was upgraded, and I failed to back up the source in a reasonable location. Too lazy to re-invent the wheel, I deigned to add signatures the MS Outlook way, using Alt-I S M X Enter. Besides, after a security patch was applied, Outlook would force me to respond to a warning every time I ran that macro. And anyway, when adding the signature to replies, I would always have to move the signature from the very bottom of the message to the point just after the end of my response and before the quoted message. (I'm pretty sure I can fix that, actually.)

So the code you see in the edited post came from an hour-and-a-half session I spent to recreate the code -- a Saturday night pursuit of geeky leisure.

Monday, July 03, 2006

The Ideal Career Path

I just read Sacha Chua's "On programming as a career" post and had to stop what I was doing and write about it.

I understand the feelings that went into her post. I've been trying to strike a new career path for myself -- something with more of a human element. The thing that thrills me is computer automation, especially applied to design processes, data processing and administration. The thrill has two sources. The first is from overcoming the challenge of making the automation succeed. The second is from seeing smiles when my coworkers experience the relief that comes from knowing they don't have to repetitively point and click through several silly menus to accomplish something.

My ideal Masters Degree would be in "The Automation of Computers to Make Life Easier For the Poor People Who are Stuck Using Them."

It doesn't have to involve computers, actually. I plan to involve them in my career path only because I believe I can make more money in a field that incorporates them. I could be nearly as happy serving as an efficiency expert, helping people to live better.

Suppose someone is intent on making a fried egg for breakfast before going to work. I might suggest that she take the eggs and butter out of the refrigerator first thing in the morning. Then after she has showered and is ready to cook, the eggs aren't as cold and will cook more quickly and will be less inclined to stick. And the butter will be soft enough to spread easily.

But I've learned that not everyone likes being told how to do something. If my wife has any say in the matter, I would be better off staying out of her kitchen and woking on a computer.

How would this play out on a computer? Well, if I knew someone who enjoyed instant messaging with friends on different servers and who liked to keep up with a few RSS feeds, I might suggest they use Miranda IM, the Swiss Army Knife of IM clients. It can work with ICQ, AIM, MSN, YIM, IRC, Jabber and GoogleTalk. Plus there are numerous add-ons, one of which can make it report feed updates. And it's Open Source. The only reasons it's not today's killler app are that it lacks marketing push and it doesn't require a hardware upgrade to run it.

Anyway, good luck to Sacha, and to myself. If you have any advice for either of us, let me know!