Thursday, November 29, 2007

Banewood's Comcast Adventure

My broadband internet service was down this morning. After rebooting the modem a couple of times, I went to check on the television, which has "digital" service. While there was basic service, all of the premium digital channels were blank, leading me to conclude that service to the house was down for whatever reason.

Once I got to work, I googled the tech support number for Comcast, which is my service provider. The automated attendant quizzed me about the service I desired:

  • language of choice?
  • corporate or commercial customer?
  • television or internet service?
  • yadaa yadda?

After waiting through the usual "Thank you for your patience" messages, I got through to a human-sounding attendant who informed me that my account was in good standing and there was no service interruption in my area. This afternoon would be the earliest that they would be able to make a service call to my home. Would I like noon to 4:00 p.m. or would I like 2:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m.? Interesting question -- I chose door #1. They took my number and will call me some time after noon.

Later, when I talked to a few other people this morning, I began to suspect that maybe there was an Internet outage after all. One helpful support person (I work very close to a help desk) suggested that I check the Comcast network health web page, which would tell me about the current known status in my service area. Unfortunately, that page required a login. I used to be an Adelphia customer prior to Comcast buying them out -- I tried my Adelphia username/password, but I was rejected.

Not to be deterred by such a small matter, I navigated to Comcast's support site and proceeded to respond to a series of questions that led me into a waiting cue for a tech support chat session. That person told me that I would have to actually speak to tech support.

The automated attendant quizzed me again, asked for my telephone number (including area code) and asked me to state clearly the nature of my problem.

I clearly stated "I do not have a username or password for my account."

The attendant said that it didn't understand my problem and to try again. Not so clearly this time, I said "bite my ass." Not surprisingly, that was also not a succinct statement of problem. Please press 1 if you would like to speak with a support representative.

Their automated system thanked me for my patience and informed me that they were "experiencing a higher-than-normal call volume today" (I get that EVERY time I call them, BTW). And by the way, there is currently a service interruption in the Morgantown area. If I would still like to speak with a real person, enter my telephone number (again).

After about 15 minutes in the company of an automated attendant thanking me for my patience, I think I spoke to a real person. He eventually told me that I don't actually have a Comcast account/password -- it's currently some long MAC-style number. But when service is once again resumed in the Morgantown area, they will flash my modem (I wish I could return that favor). Afterwards, I'm to call their tech support number, wait on hold for another 15 minutes because they'll most assuredly be "experiencing a higher-than-normal call volume," and eventually speak with a human who will let me establish my account name and password.

Apparently someone is still going to come in person to tell me that they're currently experiencing an Internet outage in the Morgantown area.

I have just glimpsed the ninth circle of hell.

Update: Local Comcast called me on my cell at about 4:10 p.m., asking if I still wanted them to come over (in the noon to 4:00 p.m. time frame that day).

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Sound Decisions, Part 2

As I write this, I'm recording an old vinyl Hollies album, Another Night, from 1975, onto my Linux partition.

I connected the model TC-750 pre-amp to my sound card. Using the open source Audacity program, I first recorded five tracks from side one of John Entwistle's 1972 album Whistle Rymes.

From there, I learned about using Audacity's noise reduction filter to get a noise level profile from the dead space between tracks. Using that as a baseline, I apply the filter to the rest of the music, taking out a great deal of what underlying noise was there. From there, I next applied the click removal filter. Results were admirable, and I would challenge you to tell that the resulting file was transcribed from an LP.

My next experiment was with an album with a lot of pops and clicks -- The Phantom's Divine Comedy Part 1 from 1974. This was much more challenging, and I think, beyond the basic abilities of Audacity.

I switched over to Windows XP and tried the commercial Adobe Audition software. It, too, could barely remove the scratches from the surface. I downloaded ClickFix, a shareware plug-in with a 300-second limitation. It took me a while to learn how to use ClickFix, but I was happy with the final result, which was quite clean -- albeit not perfect. And it was noticeably much faster at pop and click removal.

When I started out recording LPs onto my soundcard, I did them one song at a time. Later, I learned that Audacity has an easy way to mark spots between tracks and export them into separate songs. This obviously becomes a real time-saver, because I can do basic noise elimination and pop & click removal on an entire album side at a time, and then I can break the side up into separate song files prior to burning to CD.

Lessons learned so far:

  • If you have a decent quality album to start with, you can get a decent quality music rip without wasting money on a CD of something you already have.
  • If the album is scratchy, then it becomes a judgement call as to how much you really want to invest in time and trouble in restoring it to CD-like quality.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Sound Decisions

A fellow I work with was talking about the new breed of turntables and how nice it would be to convert some old LPs into a digital format. Googling the internets, I found some interesting and decent quality USB turntables, with some of the best prices on . When I dug deeper, however, I learned something interesting -- if you already have a decent turntable (I do, albeit an old one), then another approach is to buy your own pre-amp, and use that combination for ripping.

It turns out that even some of the better USB turntables don't feature cuing. I decided that my old Audio Technica turntable with direct drive, speed control, damped cuing, dust cover and a pretty decent Pickering magnetic cartridge with elliptical stylus could still serve me well. When I compare that venerable dinosaur to this $300 Stanton T.90 model at Amazon, I would still opt to keep my own.

Now I'm looking to get a standalone pre-amp, which I can use to hook my turntable directly to my PC's soundcard. Here's where I found a good lineup of pre-amps: I've ordered the TCC TC-750 model, which lists for under $50. It was mentioned in this PC World article, which seems pretty informative.

Hardware alone is only part of the story. Most of the USB tuntables came bundled with Audacity, which is an Open Source program. I downloaded the Linux version the other night. The Linux sound quality of my home-built PC is superior to that of the Windows XP side, which often has a background hum. The culprint, I think is the Chaintech AV-710 Sound Card. Often a cold boot into Windows XP will result in some godawful sound coming from the speakers. It must be the drivers, because the card is perfect under Ubuntu's Gutsy.

Years ago, I attempted some LP ripping using older software and older technology, so I'm not going into this with any delusions as to how problematic this will be. It's a real bear to get all of the pops and clicks out. Still, I have a substantial collection of LPs, some of which do not appear to have their CD counterpart. This looks like it could be a productive use of my time on some cold winter nights.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Banewood's Post Office Adventure

In a previous posting, Yesterday's Word, I talked about my great hope to make some bucks on eBay by selling off my ancient copy of Microsoft Word Version 1.00. That day arrived last weekend, and my hopes were dashed when it only sold for a paltry $20.49.

I took it to the post office after work the other day to bid it goodbye and ship it to its new owner. In spite of my sadness, I was in an uncharacteristically good mood when I handed the package over to the lady behind the counter and asked to ship it via media mail.

"Is there anything liquid, fragile or perishable in the container?" Asked the clerk.

"No," I replied.

"Does the package contain any hazardous material?" She inquired.

"Well," I said with a puckish grin, "it does contain Microsoft Word. Some people would argue that it's pretty dangerous.

BIG Mistake!

"Microsoft Word?" She frowned and said "That's not media! You'll have to send it parcel post."

"No way," I countered. "It's a software manual and the installation disk on a 5.25-inch floppy. That's media!"

"No it isn't," she replied condescendingly.

I asked her to show me the rules, and she pulled out this big sheet and read from it.

Media Mail is used for books, film, manuscripts, printed music, printed test materials, sound recordings, play scripts, printed educational charts, loose-leaf pages and binders consisting of medical information, videotapes, and computer-recorded media like CDs and diskettes. Media Mail cannot contain advertising.

"What you have is not media," she said dryly.

"Yes, it is!" I said in my most authoritative tone, which was perhaps underpinned with a touch of exasperation. "This is a software manual in a three-ring binder, with the installation software. You can go to any bookstore and buy a computer book with a CD in the back."

At this point, the lady in the stall next to her told her not to argue with me. "Alright!" I thought to myself. "Someone who understands the meaning of customer service -- and media mail."

But then she added "Just stamp it Postage Due and send it that way." Which my clerk promptly did.

I was dumbstruck. No way was I intentionally going to send some one's eBay winnings Postage Due. I wasn't going to win this round, so I caved. "Okay," I said. "Send it Parcel Post."

Ka-ching! Next!