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Home Studio Housecleaning Heck and Terrible Tech Support

Since I’ve recently left my job as UX Practice Area Lead for Slalom Consulting, I decided to use some of the three or four hours I’m no longer spending driving back and forth to San Francisco every day toward more creative endeavors. Specifically, I decided it was well past time to revitalize the home recording studio I first built in the early 1990s, but which has seen precious little use as such in recent years.

The good news is that the drums, guitars, wires, and amps have weathered the test of time more or less unscathed. The real problem is that everything electronic has more or less gone obsolete in just a few short years since my last abortive effort to update things.

Some of this was to be expected: my proudly blinking rack of digital signal processing effects had already been consigned to back-up duties a decade earlier when digital signal processing software plugins became the norm. Likewise, the PCI-based Mac at the heart of my recording system was long ago replaced by a PC that was approximately 20 times its speed…only to have that in turn replaced by a lithe MacBook Pro. With those changes came hundreds of dollars of necessary upgrades to software, along with endless hours of driver installations, software activations, and more.

Where I stepped deep into the suck however, was with the expensive gear I’d bought just three years ago to run audio and MIDI signals. Both devices turned out to be complete lemons: and are now obsolete or malfunctioning, and the manufacturers seem determined to add to the damage with terrible technical support policies.

Most vexing of the two device was my M-Audio Fast Track Ultra, a device which is used to record and playback multiple channels of digital audio at once–the heart of a modern recording project. I’d used the device just a couple of times before on some podcast-style projects in my office, and was really looking forward to finally hooking it up to my downstairs recording setup. But no sooner was it racked up and powered on in my studio, than it started emitting a steady “pop-pop-pop-pop” and blinking all its console lights every half-second in a mad digital version of a grand mal seizure.

Sadly, this appears to be a known manufacturing defect with this device, as a notorious YouTube video and numerous exasperated support threads acknowledge. (To see how widespread the defects with this unit are, check out eBay’s listings for the device: there are far more broken ones for sale than working ones).

Almost as disappointing was the saga of the MidiMan MidiSport 8×8 controller I bought in 2007 to replace my aged Opcode Studio 5 MIDI Interface. Having suffered through the endless workarounds required to adapt the ancient serial standards and drivers for that older piece of gear, I’d been relieved that the new controller would use the familiar USB interface, thus ensuring a long life of compatibility for the undemanding task of spitting out MIDI note messages to my rack of vintage synths and samplers.

Unfortunately, that “long life of compatibility” was to be measured in hamster years. It turns out that the MidiSport interface I bought was incompatible with the USB 3.0 ports on my MacBook Pro. “Not to fear!” I thought, as I whipped out the USB 2.0 hub I’d used to solve a similar compatibility issue with guitars in Rocksmith recently. Only then did I also learn that the MidiSport is possibly the only USB device I’d ever heard of that is incompatible with the use of USB hubs(!). Oh yeah, and it’s incompatible with Mac OS 10.9 (“Mavericks”).

I later learned that MidiMan had been retired as a brand, and was actually owned by…M-Audio(!) M-Audio, in turn was sold in 2012 to InMusic, although some of the software (such as ProTools) and audio hardware (my forlorn Fast Track Ultra) were taken on by Avid.

“But heck, at least I’ll call tech support to ask them if they’re planning an update” I thought as I stared forlornly at my persistently blinking Fast Track Ultra and my never-to-blink-under-any-circumstances MidiSport 8×8. “I mean, they can’t just leave folks stranded, since these are mainstream prosumer interfaces bought by thousands of musicians–most of which use Macs, and most of those who’ve probably taken Apple up on their free upgrade to Mavericks. If they don’t have an upgrade out yet, it’s probably in the works…”

If only.

When you’ve blown several hundred dollars on hardware that’s gone obsolete or malfunctioning a very  few of years later, it turns out that there’s one trick that a truly determined company can use to make your life even more miserable than abandoning you with a useless product. That trick, my friends, is to refuse to pick up the phone or answer your emails unless you’ve paid an additional fee for the privilege of receiving technical support for your product.

Avid–who now owns the M-Audio sound hardware products including Fast Track Ultra, calls their tech support their “Customer Success Department”. This “Success Department” has a nearly impenetrable phone tree which screens away all who don’t have a “valid support subscription”, although they helpfully direct you to their online webstore where you can purchase a “one-time support code” to get a single question answered–for prices ranging from $14.95 to $79.95 depending on the product. Yes, to even ask if they knew why my interface was malfunctioning, they wanted me to pay an additional $14.95.

After an hour of hunting around and waiting, I did actually manage to contact the hardware repair department of Avid without paying extra for the privilege. It was little use, though, as they told me that the hardware repair to fix my defective unit would cost nearly was much as the original unit–with no guarantee that the underlying defect would be addressed.

Dejected, I tried one last desperate phone call to the folks who now owned the future of my MidiSport. They just call their technical support department the “technical support department”, but after another phone tree, I was told that if I wanted to actually talk to their technical support, I’d need…you guessed it… to buy a support incident or contract.

I hung up.

My obviously hardware-defective Fast Track Ultra is now in my office garbage can, since I can’t bring myself to inflict it on others–even for the sake selling it for parts.

My MidiSport 8×8 will be on eBay within the hour. I hope I manage to reclaim at least a few of the dollars from that lost investment selling it to a person with an older computer and a lot of MIDI gear.

And after a big dent to my credit card (and a lot of calls to confirm compatibility with the manufacturer), I’m going to try it all again with a new set of interfaces from MOTU. Wish me luck…

…I have a feeling I’ll need it.

Another Data Point in the Ongoing Obamacare Debacle

We just got our insurance rate notices in for 2014. The policies which cover our small staff of young, male staffers now include statutorily mandatory (and quite useless) pregnancy coverage as well as pediatric dental care. Their premiums also just doubled. .

When I say “doubled”, I mean precisely that–almost to the cent. Technically, they went up 100.4%. In one year.

Thanks to the “affordable” care act, our overall insurance rates have gone up astronomically, our deductibles have massively increased, and for the first time ever, we’re giving very serious thought to dropping our employee health care altogether and hoping our employees do better than my own quote on the California “exchange”, where my new lowest-priced available plan for my family of four is an essentially worthless plan that charts in at over $1,000/month, with a $5,000 deductible and terrible choice of doctors. Like most other things in this damnable sham of a law, the promise that we would both save money on our premiums and be able to keep our doctors were transparent lies. Now it’s looking increasingly likely our employees may lose their insurance altogether. 


The Fine Line Between Inclusiveness and PC Crap: Starbucks’ “Holiday Blend”


Judging by my actual spending, I’m a huge Starbucks supporter, with more mornings than not starting with a walk down to the local to grab a mocha with my beautiful wife Carolyn. As the seasons pass, there’s a certain rhythm to their promotional calendar, which becomes in its own way, part of the way we mark the seasons: from the summer Frappuccino specials to the fall pumpkin spice latte introduction, to the eagerly anticipated–and all too brief–time when the eggnog drinks come out, marking the start of the Christmas season.

For the past 23 years or so, Starbucks has also done a special “Christmas blend” of coffee, and I’ll usually grab a bag or two during the holiday season to keep the coffee grinder at home supplied when I’m not slugging down caffeine in their stores. This year, however, I noticed something a little strange about their promotional schedule: the Christmas Blend coffee went on discount nearly the moment it was released, with the discounts increasing from “free beverage with purchase” to “25% off” then “30% off” in the space of just a few days at the local Starbucks. 

“What the heck is going on?” I thought–are Christmas sales really that soft? Had I inadvertently stumbled upon a hidden indicator of underlying economic weakness?

Today, I got my answer, as the shelves at the Starbucks appeared freshly restocked with new packages of something called “Starbucks Holiday Blend”. A quick check later confirmed that there was nothing different between this new “Holiday Blend” and the now outmoded “Christmas Blend” introduced just weeks earlier. Apparently, Starbucks had simply decided to cancel the Christmas Blend and rebrand it as the generic “Holiday Blend”–just in time for the Holi-… err… Christmas.

To Howard Schultz and Co.: I gotta tell, you, this sort of thing doesn’t leave me feeling festive–it just leaves me cold. Had you created a Hanukkah blend, it would have been kind of awesome, and I might have even picked up a bag or two to gift to my Jewish friends. By joining the spineless crowd of  marketers aiming at the elusive “Holiday-which-shall-not-be-named”, it robs the campaign of any genuine human warmth. Instead, it becomes one more tentative step in the tiptoe-dance around imagined slights and hypersensitivities that steal basic human kindness from something as simple as a Christmastime greeting.

So guys, I love your products, and I love that your business offers me a great way to take a few minutes each day away from my work to spend time with friends and loved ones. At the same time, I hope your “Holiday Blend” sales tank so badly that you drop the generic pablum and get back to selling products which relate to customers on a human level without kowtowing to the gods of PCishness which have done so much to keep people walking on eggshells around each other. 

Sim City V – The News Gets Worse


Imagine a big-budget game–the crowning jewel of one of the most successful game franchises ever. Then imagine that in order to play it in single player mode, you need to be able to connect to the company’s overloaded servers, so that you routinely get 20-minute-long “waiting to connect’ messages whenever you launch the game on your own machine.

How could the situation possibly get worse? Release a “patch” which de-features the game in order to make it run. Then offer affected customers to file for a refund…but refuse to actually process any of those refund requests.

Unbelievably bad customer service. Read the whole thing.


The Big Office Internet Upgrade is Coming!

We moved Human Computing’s offices from a non-descript office park to a cool historic building in downtown San Jose a few years back. We love our current offices–especially once we spent a very long weekend pulling down a square mile of floral wallpaper and replacing it with the brightly colored walls which to this day I’m amazed our landlord let us get away with. We also have very cool neighbors including about a hundred lawyers (who throw very nice cocktail parties!) and the offices of Drum magazine.

The only real sore spot is that the internet situation at the office has been less than ideal. We tried both T1 and Wireless T1 at first, before settling into the current DSL offered by AT&T, who luckily has a switching station relatively close to the office so the speeds aren’t as terrible as they might have been. Unfortunately, although our “downstream” speeds are reasonable, the “upstream” speeds that we can put out are just shy of horrific. To give you an idea, whenever we push an update out to our production servers located in another part of town, it becomes impossible to use the phones in the office for ten minutes as there’s so little bandwidth left. Pushing pictures and other bulky data to our production servers also takes hours when it should take minutes.

So it was with great relief that I read this week that Comcast will be wiring up the building at last, and offering state-of-the-art speeds (up to 120 MB/s down/30 MB/s up!) to residents of the building. It all starts mid-week this week, and there may be a little disruption during that time, but I can’t wait to give the new speeds a try. Since we upgraded our production servers last month, they’re already lightning fast, but this new upgrade holds the promise of making a lot of the day-to-day life of our own staffers much more pleasant.

Mind you, there’s some heavy lifting on our part to get there: we’ll have to reconfigure a few thousand firewall rules for the new networking, propagate new DNS settings to the internet, and few other measly upgrade tasks. After that, we should be able to sit back and enjoy our non-crackly phones and faster network!

Solving a Blue Screen Crash in Virtual PC on Windows 7

Whenever we get close to releasing another version of ComicBase, a big part of the testing is to make sure it runs under all our supported platforms. For ComicBase, this means 32 and 64 bit versions of a dozen or so variants of Windows XP, Windows Vista (yeah, “boo, hiss”), and of course, Windows 7.

A decade ago, we used to abuse the computer rentals at Kinko’s, trying each attempt at an installer out on a machine before moving on to the next one (and, I confess, leaving the poor Kinko’s staff to deal with any crud we may have left behind when the installers went awry).When an installer was really problematic, we’d have to move to another location. In this way, I learned the locations of most of the Kinko’s locations in the San Jose area.

In these more enlightened times, we use “virtual machines” — basically, Windows running on simulated hardware using pre-set disk images which we keep up to date with all the various flavors we need to test against. It’s basically a computer within a computer, complete with its own boot-up and shut-down–all within a little window on your regular PC. As a bonus, we can try the install, then just “wipe” the virtual PC back to its virgin state for future testing.  As you can imagine, these virtual PCs have become crucial to our testing process.

Unfortunately, something weird has begun happening using the new version of Virtual PC built into Windows 7 Ultimate Edition: after running installers that we know to be good, the virtual box began crashing with the dreaded Blue Screen of Death (BSOD). (If you think running a computer within a computer is weird, having your simulated computer blue-screen on you is downright bizarre).

After trying seemingly everything (different virtual machines, using it with or without Windows XP mode, etc.) it seems the problem is triggered by the new Hardware Virtualization support in Virtual PC and the particular hardware of our development machines. (Typically i7-based, Gigabyte P55 boards with a variety of NVidia graphic cards and overly complicated graphic setups). By going into the BIOS on the Gigabyte boards, selecting M.I.T., and disabling the Hardware Virtualization support, our virtual PC once again ran normally (if somewhat slowly).

Naturally, as luck would have it, there’s still a wrinkle in that the very first thing ComicBase does when launching is try to locate its Picture disks and (you guessed it!) turning off the hardware virtualization support seems to interfere with the virtual box’s ability to scan drives, making the initial drive check take several minutes instead of a second or two.

Unless we can find a better solution, it looks like we’ll either have to test on different basic hardware, or find a different virtualization software like Virtual Box to test against. The latter, of course, would force us to spend a week or more re-creating our test environment on the new (incompatible) disk images used by Virtual Box.

Any virtualization gurus out there got suggestions for a better way to go?

Fun Facts About Generators

We got a notice a while back that PG&E was going to be downing the power on our street in order to fix a transformer. Power was to be down all day, which unfortunately posed a bit of a problem since, well… We have all those computers and stuff we use to run our business.

Having survived the infamous “Gray Outs” where “rotating outages” would leave us sending everyone home when the place went dark’ I was in no mood for a repeat.

Then a brainwave hit: “I know!” thought I, “we can get a generator”

Thus began an educational adventure, as a result of which I discovered a number of interesting things:

1. They’re not as loud as you fear. It’s just like someone’s mowing the lawn…all the time.

2. If you actually want to plug something in to your generator which lives more than 20 feet away, prepare to spend as much on heavy gauge power cords as you would for yearly passes to the waterslide park for a family of four.

3. They are every bit as heavy as you feared. Luckily, they have wheels. This is when you’ll discover that the place you want to put your generator does not have pavement.

4. You apparently need about a million watts of generator capacity if you plan on actually using a major appliance–like, say, your electric razor. That’s because–at least according to the “sizing charts” that accompany generators–even the most innocuous appliances are given to wild streaks when–like the Hulk when you make him angry–they surge to 20 times their original power. That fridge you’ve been monitoring at 22 watts all year? According to lore, it can surge up to 1750 watts when something (the defroster?) sets it off. Consider yourself warned.

5. GFCI outlets and computers don’t mix. This is the big one, and really the whole excuse for writing this post. You see, a GFCI outlet (Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter) is standard on most portable generators, and is used to make sure you don’t kill yourself by taking the genny with you as you take a quick dip in the pool. The idea is, if it ever sees even a tiny disparity in the generated power vs. What it senses on the neutral wire, it’ll throw the breaker so that your loved ones will be safe as they fish your body out of the shallow end.

Unfortunately (as my electrician friend explained it to me after a miserable day when the genny decided to throw the switch whenever we dared ask it to, umm… actually generate some power for us) the GFCI design also implies that any time you hook up a medium-to sorta biggish capacitor to the line (like the sort in UPSs, computers, and all that gadgety stuff), it’ll also think someone is drowning and blow the whistle.

So yes, that in short is why we were down all day, why me and the staff are a bit frazzled, but why the beer in the fridge (no big capacitor there–just an allegedly Hulk-sized defroster which didn’t cause a lick of trouble) is still icy cold.

And boy do I need one after today….