Category Archives: PC Tech

Upgraded Time Warner

Today we had our service from Time Warner Cable (TWC) upgraded.  We went from standard cable plus RoadRunner service to Digital Cable, plus RoadRunner and the TWC wireless network service.  I’d networked the house with a bunch of Linksys gear a long while back, but it’s been problematic for Celeste in her office with the signal usually being too weak for her to work effectively.  I’d tried every thing I could think of to boost the signal, but to no avail.  We’re giving their network gear a try to see if it’s any better, and since our overall monthly bill only went up $10 it’s essentially a bunch of free gear with added stations via digital cable.  If she still has problems then we might start looking at alternatives like DSL.

But that’s not the main reason I’m writing about this.  The real reason is to highlight some of the positives and negatives of the transaction.  I’ll start with the positives:

  • I called just yesterday to upgrade and they scheduled us for first thing this morning.
  • The technician showed up early.
  • The technician was very friendly and courteous.
  • The digital TV worked as advertised on the TV in the living room which is the most important one in the house.
  • I now have an incredible number of sports stations available (unfortunately still no NFL Network, so no Redskins-Bears game for me on Thursday).

Now for the negatives:

  • The rep on the phone never asked me how many TVs we wanted the digital for, and I never thought to ask if I had to ask for digital boxes for each TV.  Consequently the technician had only one box with him and I’ll have to request another call if we want boxes on all our TVs.  They’ll run us $8.95 per month for each box.  We still get standard cable on our other TVs so we may not need them anyway, but it’s annoying that they didn’t even give us the option.
  • The phone rep also had me down for wanting TWC’s DVR service.  I never asked for it because I already have TIVO. Celeste had to call to get them to take it off the order.
  • The installation of the modem/router on my computer  went fine, but when the tech tried to set up Celeste’s wireless access it didn’t go well. TWC’s gear is all Netgear and when he plugged the USB access point into the computer and then tried to launch the setup disk it didn’t work.  In fact WindowsXP wouldn’t acknowledge any wireless networks, not even the old Linksys. We looked through the instructions together and figured out that he needed to run the software first and then plug in the gear.  He did that and it still didn’t work. At that point he called another tech guy and scheduled him to come out and I signed for everything and he left.  After he left I played with the computer and decided to uninstall the Linksys software that had been installed for the old network and then try to reload the Netgear stuff.  I did that, but the Netgear software still didn’t launch, however I was able to see a wireless network in the Windows task tray and so I used the XP network setup and got the wireless to work.
  • The tech guy never showed me how or where he’d configured the network settings and he never asked me if I wanted it secure or not.  Guess who’s new network was wide open and naked to the world!  But like I said I’ve been through this before and knew that he’d probably left the IP address of Netgear’s configuration page in the browser.  Sure enough it was there and he’d been good enough to click the "save password" box in the pop-up window that asks for your ID and password.  Unfortunately I have no idea what the password is so I can’t change it even if I want to.  That also means if the cookie with that info gets deleted I’m hosed. I should have asked him for all the info before he left, but it didn’t occur to me until too late. Still, at least for now I can get in and set up the encryption so that our network isn’t being used by every 15 year old in a 1/2 block radius (there’s at least two of them).
  • I use Vonage for my phone service.  The tech informed me that he didn’t think Vonage worked on their system and at first that appeared to be true, but after I got Celeste’s wireless set up I reconfigured the router/Vonage box alignment in my office and it is working beautifully.  it’s a positive that I got my Vonage to work, but a negative that the tech didn’t know how to do it.  In his defense he may not have been allowed to set it up since TWC probably wanted me to get their $44/month VOIP service in lieu of my $25/month Vonage service.
  • There’s no guide for the digital cable service, because apparently TWC has run out of them.  That means I’m going to have to really play around with it to figure it out.  That’s kind of how I do things anyway, but there are certain details I’ll need.  Prime example: I want to enlist parental controls but I need to know what the default PIN on the system is before I can change it.  I don’t have that handy piece of information and it is kind of important now that we have pay per view (PPV) capabilities and some of those PPV capabilities include,uh, adult entertainment.  Did I mention that we have teenagers and they have friends?  This could cost us big if I don’t get this info soon.

The long and the short of it is that TWC sent out a guy who did the best he could, but they obviously haven’t provided strong enough training on the wireless network set up.  If he’d done the set up for any number of my family members or friends they’d be hosed right now because they haven’t wasted their time messing around with wireless networks on any level.  Ah well.

Now I’m off to find out what my PIN is on the digital TV box before I end up with a bunch of teenage boys watching "Hot College Girls Get Crazy" in my living room while I’m out of the house.

My Dell Laptop Gets Hot, But Not This Hot…Yet

I’ve had my Dell laptop for about 3 1/2 years and until about three
months ago it was my everyday computer.  It always ran a little hot and
the fan made a hell of a racket, but otherwise it performed pretty
well.  Then it started acting hinky and I decided to get a desktop and
only use it when I was on the road for extended periods of time.

I came across this story about a Dell laptop that exploded and now I’m thinking I might need to unload the thing altogether.  Scary.

My Dream Machine

In the last year my Grandmother has lost a significant amount of her vision.  Basically she can see shadows and that’s about it, and since she’s 85 she has that many years of ingrained habits that rely on her being able to see.  I know how hard it is for me to adjust to major change at 39, I can only imagine how hard it is for her at 85.

My aunts have been very busy helping Grandmother, taking her to appointments, taking her grocery shopping and all the other daily chores we take for granted.  They’ve also enlisted the help of an agency (sorry, I’m not sure which one) that has provided some guidance in dealing with services for the blind.

One of the things the agency did was provide a special tape recorder (looks like it was made in the 60s) that has symbols on the keys so that a blind person can tell the "Play" button from the "Stop’" button.  To be honest the machine is a real clunker, and I honestly don’t think many of the tapes interest Grandmother.  I also think she misses reading the newspaper and I know she feels more isolated than she ever has, despite my aunts’ best efforts.

So I decided to do a little research and find out what kind of technology is out there that might help Grandmother, and while I’ve found some interesting stuff I don’t think any of it is quite right.  For instance I found a machine that will scan any printed matter and convert it to speech in a couple of different voices and languages that the user can select.  Very cool (and about $2,600), but after watching Grandmother struggle with the buttons on the tape recorder I wouldn’t want to subject her to having to figure out this machine. 

The scanner is just one example of some of the technology that’s available, but I don’t really think any of them will work.  Another example is all the computer stuff I found.  There’s a lot of software out there that lets blind people use a computer for work and play in traditional ways (software that converts screen text to audio) but that still requires someone to know how to use a computer in the first place. What I’m looking for is a machine, probably a computer that can be manipulated via voice by anyone.

That’s led me to imagining what kind of machine I would build for Grandmother if I were a sufficiently talented engineer.  Unfortunately I’m not an engineer by any description, but particularly not "sufficiently talented". I’m going to outline my dream machine below, and if anyone has a suggestion for how I might find or build a product like this please let me know.

My dream machine would:

  1. Work off of voice prompts.  No button pushing or reading necessary.
  2. Could be managed remotely for tech support.
  3. Would provide audio output of information (news stories, directory listings, audio sent by family and friends, etc.).
  4. Would be navigable by voice prompt, and if it doesn’t "understand" commands would provide audio feedback.
  5. Would also act as her phone.
  6. Would be "always on."

I guess what I’m imagining is HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey, of course without the thing going evil on my Grandmother.

You’ll notice that I didn’t mention any features like email, web surfing, etc.  That’s because I seriously doubt Grandmother would ever do those things, but I’d imagine any machine equipped to do what I ask would also have the standard computer stuff available as well.

Actually I think the biggest deal here is the user interface.  It needs to feel familiar to Grandmother, to be analagous to devices she’s accustomed to like a phone or a radio.  I know if we called it a computer she’d never use it, so it could be her fancy radio that she can talk to and it talks back.  Or the phone that has a radio attached.  Whatever, as long as it works and she doesn’t have to push anything.

So maybe she would email, but really it would be her saying "Do I have any messages?" and the machine replying, "You have three new messages."  She’d then say "Play the first one" the machine plays it and asks "Would you like to reply?" and then Grandmother says "Yes" and so on.  To her she’s talking, but to you and me she’s sending an audio email.

Well, I think you get my drift, and now you know why it’s my dream machine, not my reality machine.  What with the aging of our population I hope these voice applications come along sooner rather than later, because I think we’ll need them.  Here’s to hope.