Thoughts

Unscrupulous customer care at Apple

This is one of those posts I don’t enjoy writing but this must be said.

I have a mid-2011 27″ iMac (with AppleCare). It has now broken down three times for the very same problem (its video card goes bad). Other things on it also broke down, like the SuperDrive.

Bottom line: Apple has refused to replace it, although I’ve asked them twice. I think they’re just trying to kick the ball down the road until AppleCare expires. This isn’t the first time, they did it to me with another iMac.

Section 3.1 in the AppleCare agreement says the following:

“Apple will either (a) repair the defect at no charge, using new or refurbished parts that are equivalent to new in performance and reliability, or (b) exchange the Covered Equipment with a replacement product that is new or equivalent to new in performance and reliability, and is at least functionally equivalent to the original product.”

Notice they’re giving no clear rules about when they’ll replace it, although when you speak with Apple technicians, they’ll say three times is when it happens. It’s been three times for me and still no replacement. Not specifying when a defective computer must get replaced in the AppleCare Terms of Service gives Apple lots of backpedaling room, so they can delay that expense as much as possible, perhaps until AppleCare expires.

Here’s what makes this unscrupulous and unacceptable from my point of view:

  • They did this to me before with my iMac G5 (Rev. B). Those of you who owned that computer know it had a lot of issues; most often, its motherboard went bad and needed to be replaced. The board on that iMac broke down three times during its AppleCare coverage. It was in the shop for other issues as well: the Super Drive, the Bluetooth module, the WiFi module, fan speed issues (fans would go on high and stay there permanently). The motherboard broke down for the third time a month or two before AppleCare expired. They fixed it but refused to replace it. Then it broke down a few months after AppleCare expired and by then, it wasn’t their problem anymore.
  • It’s unconscionable for an Apple computer to break down in such a major way, repeatedly, after a little more than a year of use, which is when the problems with my current iMac started. Imagine where I’d be if I hadn’t bought AppleCare for this thing. It’d be sitting in my attic alongside my iMac G5. Essentially, I would have paid about $2,000 (after taking out tax and cost of AppleCare) for a computer that would have lasted a little more than a year. How shoddy was Apple’s quality control when this computer was made?
  • When the video card in my iMac broke down a second time, I was promised by a technician from Apple’s Advanced Support department, that when it happened for a third time, I’d get a replacement. Now they tell me his promise wasn’t documented in the case history so it doesn’t count. Perhaps the technician lied to me at the time to delay the replacement.
  • I’ve been an Apple customer since 1994, when I bought a PowerBook 150, my first Apple notebook. I’ve bought plenty of Apple stuff since then. Is this the way they’re treating long-time customers?
  • Apple has been putting me through all this unpleasantry right around my birthday. They have my birthday on file. No comment here.
  • Apple is one of the richest, if not the richest, companies on earth. They ought to be treating their customers right, because it’s because of them that they are where they are. It’s the right thing to do and they have the wherewithal to do it.

I wrote to Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO. No response from him, but a few days later, I was contacted by one of the people at Apple Executive Relations EMEIA in Cork, Ireland. I thought my situation would then be handled properly. No, just insincere apologies and a refusal to replace it. I wrote to Tim Cook again. No response, instead more of the same from Apple Executive Relations in Ireland. That confirmed it for me: you know what they say, a fish starts to stink from the head down. It looks to me like he’s instructed his people to do everything possible not to replace computers, even when they should be replaced. What other conclusion can I draw but this?

I was asked to accept the repair one last time and was promised that my iMac would get replaced for sure the next time its video card broke down. I asked the woman with whom I spoke to put that promise in writing. She refused point blank. I assume this was yet another lie from Apple to delay the replacement. What else can I assume when a person won’t put their promise in writing?

What complicates matters somewhat in my situation is that I bought the iMac in the States but have since transported it to Romania, which is where we spend some of our time. I can take it into an authorized Apple Repair shop and AppleCare covers its repairs there, so technically, replacements should also work. Not that this is a problem. I’ve told Apple they can ship the replacement to my US address. But I think what’s happening here is that they’re using geography and customs complications as an excuse not to replace my computer.

What should have happened is this: Apple should have replaced my current iMac, no questions asked. And out of embarrassment because of the way they handled the repairs on my iMac G5, they should have offered to at least repair it, if not replace it with its modern-day iMac counterpart.

The AppleCare agreement also says this:

For consumers in jurisdictions who have the benefit of consumer protection laws or regulations, the benefits conferred by the above mentioned plans are in addition to all rights and remedies provided under such laws and regulations. Nothing in this plan shall prejudice consumer rights granted by applicable mandatory laws, including consumer’s right to the remedies under statutory warranty law and to seek damages in the event of total or partial non-performance or inadequate performance by Apple of any of its contractual obligations.

Apple is currently in breach of EU/Romanian consumer protection laws on at least two counts, by my understanding:

  1. European/Romanian consumer protection laws mandate that repairs be made with new parts, not refurbished parts. Apple technicians, including the people from Apple Executive Relations, have admitted that they’ve been using refurbished parts to fix my iMac until now, and only this last time have they used a new replacement video card. The woman from Apple Executive Relations Ireland said that to me during one of our phone conversations… So they’ve been in breach on this point from the get-go.
  2. European/Romanian consumer protection laws further mandate that the customer must be offered the choice of a replacement or repair. The choice rests with them, not with Apple. I asked for a replacement, didn’t get it, they’re in breach of the law.

Since I bought my iMac in Florida, I also put in a request for assistance with the Office of the Attorney General there and I’ll see what they say. If any of you reading this are knowledgeable on the matter, please chime in.

I’d like to quote from a recent ad campaign from Apple. Keep in mind the things you’ve just read above as you see what they’re saying:

This is it.
This is what matters.
The experience of a product.
How it makes someone feel.

Will it make life better?

We spend a lot of time
On a few great things.

How am I supposed to feel after the way you’ve just treated me, Apple? Would you say that you’ve made my life better?

Couple this self-congratulatory ad piece with Tim Cook’s stating during the WWDC Keynote that Apple is #1 in Customer Satisfaction and that it “means so much” to him. If this stuff means so much to Apple, they wouldn’t be doing this to me (and who knows to how many others).

There will probably be some comments about switching to another platform. This isn’t about that. I love my Apple hardware and software. It’s just that quality control seems to be going down the drain and Apple execs seem to be in risk management mode. Apple computers have traditionally been about two things: design and quality. That’s what I’ve been paying for when I bought Apple products. Now it seems they’re about one thing: design.

I want to make it clear that I think what’s now happened to me twice is not the norm of my experience with Apple; that’s why I still buy Apple products. For example:

  • The Powerbook 150 I bought in 1994 lasted about 6 years before the hard drive went bad; if I fix it, I might even be able to boot it up and use it today,
  • The 15″ MacBook Pro I bought in 2008 is still going strong; along the way, I replaced the hard drive and the two cooling fans, but I can still edit HD video on it,
  • The iMac I advised my parents to buy in 2008 is also still going strong. It had a couple of minor issues but they occurred while it was still covered by AppleCare,
  • The 13″ MacBook we bought in 2008 still works; although the video conks out every once in a while, a reboot sets it straight, and
  • My experience with Apple software has been positive from the get-go; I’ve always found it to be stable, a joy to use and easy to live with.

I suppose whatever happened to my two iMacs was inevitable as their volume increased (making more of everything means there will be also be more manufacturing defects) but the way they’re choosing to handle the situation reminds me of PC companies, and I don’t think Apple shareholders and customers want to see it go down that road.

Still, if that’s what’s in the cards for Apple and their stuff is going to become less and less reliable, then I guess they’ll have to convince their customers to buy their stuff for looks alone and for the real work, people might have to build Hackintoshes, where they’ll get to use the Apple software they love and get the reliability, serviceability and upgradeability that we should be getting directly from Apple. With a Hackintosh, we won’t need to pay extra for AppleCare, which now appears to be a band-aid that tides you over with refurbished parts for the three contractual years only to have your computer break down soon afterward. Planned obsolescence and a price premium? Is that the Apple way?

My take-home message for Tim Cook and Apple: this isn’t the way you should be doing business.

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Thoughts

Where’s the Netflix Shelf?

The more movies and shows Ligia and I watch on Netflix, the more convinced we become that Netflix lacks a vital feature. We call it the Shelf. Where is it?

The Netflix Shelf would hold titles we’ve seen and loved. It would contain two collections: a smart collection, which would automatically bring together the titles we’ve rated 4 stars or higher), but more importantly a manual collection, where we could add titles we’d like to watch again in the feature — movies and shows we really love, perennial favorites if you will.

Within the Shelf, we could sort titles by genre, keywords, actor or director (using the metadata added by Netflix staff or metadata we could add ourselves).

There were so many occasions we saw a movie, loved it, wanted to store it somewhere so we could see it again in the future, but didn’t want to leave it in the queue, cluttering up the list of titles we still haven’t seen. There was and is no place for them yet, and that’s regrettable, because it’s a lost opportunity for Netflix to create customer goodwill at a time when they need it.

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Thoughts

It’s time to demand reliability from DSLR manufacturers

Update: After sending the camera in for service to a Canon authorized repair facility, it turns out I took somewhere between 75,000 – 100,000 shots with my 5D when the shutter mechanism failed. Still, most of what I wrote below is appropriate commentary on the whole situation. 

When DSLRs (and now HDSLRs) cost thousands of dollars, and the manufacturer makes a promise that the shutter in said DSLR is rated for 100,000 shots or 150,000 shots, I think it should no longer be a promise, but a guarantee, and the manufacturer ought to be responsible for the repair to a DSLR whose shutter failed before its rated number of shots.

Look at cars. Some cars cost little more than a top of the line DSLR, but cars have serious warranties. These days, some cars have 10-year warranties on everything. Historically speaking, even if most cars haven’t had good warranties on everything, they’ve had good warranties on the power train — on the basic stuff that makes them go.

On a DSLR, the shutter is part of the camera’s “powertrain”. Without it, the camera can’t take photographs, and a full-frame DSLR that can’t take photographs is a very expensive paperweight.

It’s high time we demanded that DSLR manufacturers come up with warranties for the more expensive DSLRs, where they’ll guarantee that the shutter and the motherboard (pretty much every part that takes photos and writes those photos to a card) will work for a certain amount of time.

If we don’t, we’ll likely run into the situation I’m in right now, where my Canon EOS 5D’s shutter started to fail at under 50,000 shots. Initially, photos taken at 1/6000 sec or higher (1/8000 sec) would come out black or almost black. Now, months later and at around 52,500 shots, even photos taken at 1/1000 sec are severely underexposed.

Have a look at three photos taken with the 5D. The first two were taken at 1/8000 sec shutter speed a couple of months ago, and the third was taken at 1/1000 sec shutter speed a few days ago.

It’s not right that the shutter has started to fail at half its projected life span of 100,000 shots. And what’s even more improper is Canon USA Support’s reply to me. They told me the shutter’s rated life is not a warranty, not even a promise, but an expectancy (an anticipation if you will).

What that means is they can advertise long shutter lives all they want, but they’re not accountable for actual, real-world results from its customers. It’s irresponsible, and it shouldn’t be allowed. When we pay thousands of dollars for a fancy DSLR, we as customers pay that money with certain expectations in mind. Those expectations entail (among others) a need for durability and reliability.

I propose that a set of benchmarks be set for the entire photography industry, where shutter life is one of the differentiating criteria. Processor and camera motherboard life should be another. Manufacturers would then have to offer warranties on these benchmark criteria. I propose 4 or 5-year warranties on the circuits, and on shutter life, the warranty should go as far as its stated life span. If it’s 100,000 shots, then by Noah, it should be 100,000 shots, end of story.

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Thoughts

SmugMug, are you listening?

I’m disappointed with SmugMug over their continued lack of support for proper export and maintenance of photographs directly from Lightroom. Back in July, I wrote about the Flickr Publish Service in Lightroom, and wondered when SmugMug would introduce their own.

What I was really looking for (and I said this in the post) was a way for the publish service to identify what I’ve already uploaded and allow me to re-publish those photos where I’ve made changes to the metadata or to the processing. The official Flickr Publish Service didn’t offer that option.

A few of my readers (Gary, Chris, Russell, thanks!) pointed me to Jeffrey Friedl’s excellent plugins for Lightroom, and I’ve been using them ever since. As a matter of fact, I’ve switched over to them completely. I use them for all four web services where I currently publish photos (SmugMug, Flickr, Facebook and PicasaWeb). I don’t know what I’d do without them. Wait, I do know — I know for sure I’d be doing a LOT more work and spending a LOT more time uploading and maintaining my online collections.

With Jeffrey’s LR plugins, I was able to identify about 90% of the photos already uploaded to SmugMug, and about 75% of the photos already uploaded to Flickr. In the case of Flickr, I then did manual updates and re-identifies so I could get it to know 95% of the photos already uploaded. This means Lightroom now allows me to quickly identify, update and replace almost any photos I’ve got at SmugMug, Flickr, Facebook and PicasaWeb. This is huge.

There is a catch, though, and it’s a BIG one. I keep running into the same “Wrong Format ()” error with SmugMug, which means I still haven’t been able to straighten out the photos I’ve uploaded to them. Here are a couple of screenshots of the error messages I get. It starts with a “TimedOut” error, then I get the “Wrong Format ()” error, then the upload process aborts.

I get these errors almost every time I try to re-publish an updated photo, but I don’t get them as often when I try to upload new photos. To give you an idea of how bad things are, I’ve currently got 109 photos to update in one of my galleries at SmugMug, and last night, I had about 167 photos. I’ve had to restart the re-publish process about 30-40 times since last night. You do the math, but I think it works out to 1-2 photos per error. This sucks. I should be able to just click the Publish button and walk away, knowing all of my changes will propagate correctly.

I’ve contacted Jeffrey, and I’ve contacted SmugMug. I’ve had extensive email conversations with each. SmugMug alternates in their replies. They’ve said the following to me:

  • It’s a fault with the plugin
  • It’s something on their end but they’re working on it
  • There’s nothing they can do about it
  • I should use something else to upload photos
  • They blamed my setup, which we ruled out after some internet connectivity tests

Jeffrey says there’s nothing he can do about it, and I believe him more than I believe SmugMug. Want to know why? Because his other plugins work just fine. I’m able to re-publish updated photos to Flickr and Facebook and PicasaWeb without any problems. Only SmugMug somehow can’t handle my uploads.

I’ve tried reloading the plugin, installing it anew, removing and re-adding the publish service, upgrading the plugin, but nothing. I still get the same errors.

My question for the smug folks at SmugMug is this: how is it possible that Facebook and Flickr and PicasaWeb have worked out the re-publish issues, but you haven’t? What’s taking you so long? Why can’t you work out the same problem on your end?

I was hoping that with the release of Lightroom 3.2, and the release of the official SmugMug Publish Service for LR (hat tip to David Parry for the advance notice), that SmugMug would work out the kinks in their API, but it looks like they still haven’t done it. I tried their plugin, but of course they took the easy route, like Flickr, and haven’t introduced any functionality that would identify photos already uploaded to their service. Only Jeffrey Friedl’s plugins offer this feature.

This leaves me terribly disappointed. As a SmugMug Pro, I don’t want to bother with error messages. I don’t want to bother with posts like this. I’d rather post photographs and update my SmugMug galleries in peace, but I can’t.

If you’re having the same problems with SmugMug, please, write to them, and ask them when they’re going to get their act together. This problem’s existed for several months. How much more time will it take until they deal with it?

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Reviews

Audit Defense may not be worth the price

Just a quick note to let you know the Audit Defense service offered by TurboTax in recent years is probably not worth the price. It’s run by a company called TaxResources, Inc., and they say they’ll represent you to the IRS in case you should have any problems with your return, for the low price of only $39.95.

Someone close to me got to find out exactly what they give you in return for that $39.95 “peace-of mind” fee, when an irregularity popped up on their tax return. They’d made an accounting error, found it out, wanted to report it to the IRS on their own, but contacted these folks because, after all, they did pay for the service.

In the meantime, the IRS also found out about the error and contacted them. This is where the Audit Defense service should have shined. Instead, my contact got the run-around. The Audit Defense team weren’t willing to help them in a timely fashion, didn’t want to contact the IRS on their behalf like they should have done, and only ended up helping them — if you might call what they got help — after several written requests. In the end, my contact lost out on precious time, got extra stress they didn’t need, and will need to pay the IRS additional penalties.

It looks to me like the Audit Defense people failed on three of their basic promises: they didn’t step in right away to deal with the IRS, they didn’t handle the entire tax audit, and they didn’t keep IRS penalties as low as possible.

The name of the employee who “helped” my contact with their IRS audit was Joe Schricker, and the company’s name again is TaxResources, Inc. The service is advertised as Audit Defense on TurboTax, and my advice to you is not to get it.

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How To

The garden shed

We’ve recently finished putting together a “severe weather” garden shed in our yard, made by a company called Arrow. We wanted a model that could withstand hurricane-force winds, since we live in South Florida, where hurricanes do occur from time to time. The particular model that we purchased was the Homestead 10′ x 8′ (HS108). We filmed our progress along the way (it took 1½ months from beginning to end), and you can see the video below.

The process of selecting and getting the garden shed approved and built highlighted several areas of concern when it comes to the manufacturing, retail and inspection aspects of this particular model. It all turned out to be more involved and more costly than we thought. It certainly was an adventure in do-it-yourself construction.

Watch video on YouTube (parts 1 and 2) | blip.tv

We looked for guidance from our city (Hollywood, FL) when we made the decision about what garden shed to get, but they were not helpful. All they told us was that many of the sheds sold at local building stores may not be approved for use and may not pass the inspections, and that we needed a product approval sheets for the shed.

We went to Home Depot looking for sheds, but we thought the pre-assembled ones they had on display were flimsy and might not withstand strong winds. Then we went to Lowe’s looking for a shed, found one made by a company called Arrow, only to be given the run-around when it came to the product approval sheets. The store clerk thought they were on the Lowe’s website. They weren’t. The management thought the Contractor Services department had them. Perhaps they did, though we couldn’t get them to help us. Then we tried the Arrow website, where they should have been listed alongside the shed specs. They weren’t.

Fortunately (or perhaps unfortunately), we did find a particular model on the Arrow website, called the Homestead, rated for “severe weather” and engineered for the Miami-Dade county building code, which is stricter than what we have in Broward county. That meant it was sure to be approved for use here, and would pass the inspections if assembled correctly. The price was much higher than we thought though (about $1,700) for a pre-fab, un-assembled shed that came in two flat boxes and was only 10 feet by 8 feet (80 sq ft). Still, I remembered seeing a Homestead model at Lowe’s, so we went back to check. To our surprise, it was on sale for a little under $500. We thought ourselves in luck, but the clearance price should have raised a red flag for us. We bought it, knowing we’d at least have no problems getting it approved with the city.

Sure enough, it was approved, and the time for the initial inspection came. The clerks at Lowe’s told us we’d need to pour a six-inch concrete slab. Fine, no problem. Wrong. According to the building inspector, the engineering plans for the shed (put together by Arrow to supposedly comply with the Miami-Dade building code) required a house-sized foundation, which meant digging a trench all around the edge of the foundation that was 1 foot wide by 1 foot deep, with a 45-60 degree slope on the inner lip, using re-bar around its perimeter, not just wire mesh, and naturally filling it all up with concrete. That more than quadrupled our original estimate of the amount of concrete that we needed to purchase. We thought 1 pallet would be enough for a 6-inch slab. We ended up buying over 4 pallets of concrete (almost 5) in the end.

Forget the clearance price! The ridiculous foundation requirements in effect raised the price of the shed to well over its original retail price once again!

I have to lay the blame for this squarely in Arrow’s lap. After all, they were the ones who hired an engineering firm to put together the plans for the shed, and to get them approved with Miami-Dade. I sincerely doubt there’s anything in the Miami-Dade building code that specifies one must have a house-sized foundation for a flimsy pre-fab shed. That makes no sense whatsoever. All other sheds on the market do just fine with a 4-6 inch concrete slab, yet this model, which is shorter and smaller than the rest, somehow needs a house-sized foundation? No way. Someone was careless or fearful when they drew up the plans, and the customers are now paying for it!

I might have been more lenient in my overall view of the shed, had it proven sturdier during the assembly and in the final review. But it’s just as flimsy and cheaply made as the rest of the pre-fab garden sheds on the market, many of which come pre-assembled and cost a third of this shed’s original retail price. There’s nothing to set it apart for me from the rest, other than the presence of extra wall beams at waist height, and the lack of a need to use hurricane anchors to strap it to the ground once it’s assembled. The sheet metal used for its walls and doors is just as cheap and easily bent or dented, the doors open and close just as badly as on other pre-fab sheds, and to top it all off, it’s so darn short I bang my head on the lintel every time I go in and out!

Oh, and lest I forget, let me mention that Arrow forgot to provide the sufficient number of bolts and nuts needed to assemble the shed properly. We were delayed by a day during the assembly process because we needed to make a trip to the store to get some more hardware, which should have been included with the shed to begin with. On the bright side, they did include the Hilti anchors needed to anchor the shed to the concrete foundation, though I expected to need to get those myself.

Yes, the shed is now fully assembled, approved, and we’re using it. But it proved to be much more expensive in the end than it should have been, it took much more time and effort to get the project completed, and in my eyes at least, it wasn’t really worth all that. Imagine how those people who bought this shed at its original retail price felt! They must have felt they were ripped off royally. Thank goodness we at least got it at clearance price.

The City of Hollywood could also have been more helpful when I called them asking for guidance on garden sheds. Instead of dismissing me with some generic advice, they could have said, hey, here’s one of our building inspectors, talk to him and he can recommend sheds that he knows will get approved, cost less, and take less time to put together. While I understand that a government employee can’t recommend specific brands and models, at least I could have gotten helpful advice that could have saved us money, time and effort. Instead, the City of Hollywood was the only city in Broward County to raise property taxes this year, during a big recession, making me wonder exactly what we’re paying for, if they’re not helpful to us, its residents.

All I can say is this shed better hold up when the next hurricane comes, or Arrow will hear from me again.

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Thoughts

Kudos to Apple for a great customer service experience

I’d like to congratulate Apple Customer Service for the way they handled the most recent issue with our iMac G5.

If you’re a regular reader, you may know we’ve had problems with our iMac right from the start. Virtually as soon as we brought it home from the Apple Store, we had issues with it. These things got worse with time, and although we took the iMac in for repairs, repeatedly, the problems persisted. I detailed that first set of issues in this post. Several months later, we took it in for service at our local Apple Store, where we had a terrible experience. A few months after that, we took it in for service again, and then, a month or so before Apple Care ran out in late 2008, we took it in for what we hoped would be its last service call.

Unfortunately, it stopped booting up a month after Apple Care ran out. We were packing for what would turn out to be a long trip abroad, and didn’t have time to take it in for service during the 90-day warranty window offered for that last repair. I kept it boxed up, hoping I’d get to it at some point and who knows, perhaps it would auto-magically boot up. I was soured up with the whole affair, and said as much in this post. In three years of using the iMac, we’d had problem after problem, and I felt as if we never got our money’s worth from that machine. I liked it, Ligia liked it, but it just couldn’t be relied upon, and it was a shame.

By the time I got to have a look at it, it was late 2009, about a year later… I followed the steps outlined in this Support Note from Apple, and according to those instructions, the motherboard was at fault, again. I called Apple Support to explain the situation, hoping someone would be kind enough to understand and sympathize. I was very pleasantly surprised when the tech who answered the call wanted to help. He got a hold of one of the senior support engineers, whose name was Christopher, and he was also willing to help. I mention his name because I hope he’ll get some sort of recognition at work for the nice thing he did for me.

Christopher authorized an out-of-warranty repair for our iMac. We were still abroad, but when we got back to the States, I took it in for service, and the folks at the Genius Bar of the Aventura, FL, Apple Store couldn’t have been nicer, too. They did some testing and discovered, to my surprise, that it was only the power supply, and, even better than that, repaired it within hours. I dropped it at the store at 11 am, and got it back by 7 pm, in working order! I was able to boot up our iMac after more than a year and access our documents, photos, emails and more. It was like reuniting with a long-lost friend.

Now that’s my kind of Apple repair experience! I don’t know if my past repair experiences were flukes, or if something changed at Apple since then, but all I can say is that I’m very pleased to see our iMac working again, and I want to congratulate everyone involved in the resolution of this support ticket for being so understanding and so willing to help us. Great job! Thank you!

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Events

Site migration complete

Last night, I completed what could be called an unusual site migration. I went from a self-hosted WP install to WP.com. That’s right, my full site is now hosted at my WP.com account. People usually migrate from WP.com to WP self-installs after their site gets big and they decide they want more options, like the ability to run all sorts of ads and fiddle with the code, etc. With me, it was the opposite. I wanted to stop worrying about my web server and focus on publishing my content.

As I mentioned here, things got worse after upgrading to WP 2.9. My server kept going down for no reason, and often, too. It’d go down several times a day. I’d have to keep watching it all the time, and that got old real quick, especially when I traveled and had no internet access. I’d often get home to find out my site was down and had been down for several hours, if not more. Since I hadn’t mucked about with my server to make things worse, and had already fiddled with optimized my Apache, MySQL and PHP settings to last me a lifetime, I decided to have WP have a go at hosting my site and let them worry about keeping it going. Judging by the initial results, it looks like they had a bit of trouble with it too (see this, this, this and this), but at least it’s not my headache anymore.

During the migration process, I learned three things:

  1. I hadn’t been getting full XML transcripts of my site in the past, when I used WP’s WXR Export feature. See this for more, and make sure you’re not in the same boat.
  2. The WordPress Import wizard still needs a TON of work to iron out the bugs. You’ll see why below.
  3. WordPress.com Support can be terribly unresponsive. I waited over 20 days for a resolution to my ticket about the site migration, and in the end, I had to work things out myself. When I told them as much — and I tried to be as nice as possible about it — it would have been nice to get a small apology, but I didn’t even get that.

Granted, my site migration does not represent the usual WP user’s migration path, nor was it a typical migration. By current count, I have 1,552 posts, 4,129 comments and 3,090 media files. That’s quite a bit more than your average blogger, and I think that’s what served to point out the bugs in the Import Wizard.

What exactly were the bugs?

  • Failure to import all posts, comments and media files
  • Post and media file duplication
  • Failure to properly change all paths to media files (either image source or image link or both)

Here’s where I need to acknowledge the help I did receive from WP Support. My WXR file was over 20 MB. The WXR upload limit at WP.com is 15 MB. WP Support modified the upload limit to allow me to go through with the WXR upload, and they also adjusted the timeout limit, because the migrations timed out prematurely as well. So I thank them for that help.

The big problem turned out to be the third issue mentioned above. The Import Wizard didn’t change all the paths to the image files. It turned out to be a very hit-or-miss operation. Given the scale of the operation, I might even call it a disaster. Some posts were fine, some weren’t at all, and some were a hodge-podge of images that were okay, and images whose paths were wrong, or whose links were wrong, or both. You might imagine that checking and fixing the image paths for over 3,000 media files can turn out to be a very big job, and it was.

I was also under pressure to finish the job quickly, since the site was live. Imagine how you’d feel as a reader if you visited a website and none of the image files showed up — you’d probably think the site was dead or dying, right? Well, I certainly didn’t want people to think my site was on its last legs, so I had to act quickly.

Thankfully, only (sic) about 40% of my posts had their image files messed up. The rest were fine, but then I also had plenty of posts with no images. If all my posts contained images, I might have had 90% of my posts to worry about… Still, I had to check every post, and as you might know if you’re a regular reader, I post lots of images per post, and where a post was messed up, brother, I had to do a bunch of work to get it fixed up. Just as an example, some posts have anywhere from 20-50 images…

Here are a couple of screenshots that show you how things stood. Here, the image link was okay, which meant I didn’t have to modify it. This was a happy scenario. However, the image path was still wrong, as you’ll see below.

The image source, or path, didn’t change during the import process, which meant I had to change it manually, or browse for the image by title or file name in the media library and re-insert it.

The image size was also lost, which meant that if I changed the image path manually, I had to also enter the width of the image.

What made things more cumbersome was the lack of an image insert button in the Gallery dialog box. That’s one of the differences between a WP self-install and WP.com. This meant that even though I’d uploaded a certain image for a certain post, and it showed on the Gallery tab, I couldn’t go there and re-insert it into a post. I had to go to the Media Library tab, search for it, then re-insert it, which takes precious time and clicks, particularly when you’re dealing with thousands of images.

In spite of all the extra work which I had to do, and which took about 1½ weeks of my time, I got done last night. My site is now fully functional, thank goodness!

As for my experience with WP Support, there are no hard feelings. I like the WordPress platform and it’s done good by me so far. I wasn’t a VIP customer and they didn’t have any financial incentives (besides the small fees for a space upgrade and a domain mapping) to get their hands dirty with my code. They offered minimal support, and to a certain degree, that’s to be expected when most of your customers are non-paying customers, as is the case with the large majority of WP bloggers.

Still, I would encourage them to consider doing the following:

  • Improve their Import Wizard so that it will not terminate until it checks and doublechecks to make sure it has imported all the posts, comments, pages, tags, categories and media files, and all the paths to the media files are correct. They’ve still got one of my WXR files, and they can use it as case study to help improve the accuracy of the import wizard.
  • Include an image insert button on the Gallery tab of the “Add an Image” dialog box, like the one that already exists on WP self-installs.
  • Offer the functionality of the Search & Replace WP plugin for WP.com blogs. This would have been a huge help to me as I fixed the image paths. I could have run a couple of queries on my blog’s content to change most of the image paths, and it would have halved my workload.

If you were one of the folks who kept seeing no images during this transition period, sorry for the inconvenience, and I’m glad you’re still around. If you’re still seeing no images, definitely get in touch with me, I might have missed a few — after all, I’m only human.

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Reviews

United Airlines breaks guitars

In addition to stranding people in foreign cities, lying to them, and making them pay for their own stay, thereby breaking the rules of the Star Alliance, United Airlines now also breaks guitars.

In March 2008, musician Dave Carroll flew with United Airlines through Chicago, where a fellow passenger witnessed his $3,500 Taylor guitar being thrown into the hold of the aircraft by one of the UA employees. Upon arrival, Dave filed a complain with UA, asking them to reimburse him for the repair to his guitar, which came to the hefty sum of $1,500. For over a year, letters and emails and phone calls went back and forth, until UA, true to their lying form, denied responsibility for the damage and refused to pay for the repair. In return, Dave promised to release three music videos, to shame them publicly. The first, entitled “United Breaks Guitars“, is already out.

Kudos to Dave Carroll! I hope tons of people see this video and decide to do their flying with other, more customer-friendly airlines. UA deserves all that’s coming to it for the way it treats people.

[via Gulliver]

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Thoughts

It’s no surprise broadband internet sucks in the US

A recent Akamai survey, which I shared here and here, ranked US in the 33rd spot (globally) when it came to broadband internet connections above 2 Mbps. Sure, it moved up two spots compared to last year, but it’s still lagging behind countries such as Monaco, Slovakia, South Korea, and believe it or not, Romania — which is where I’m living these days.

That’s sad. It’s very sad because a country such as Romania, with fewer resources than the US, and with a LOT more corruption at every level, has managed to provide better Internet services than the US. It just goes to show you how much pork barrel legislation and ridiculous lobbying can slow down an entire country’s Internet access. Why, every time a company tried to improve the way broadband worked in the US, it was eventually bought out or dragged down and kept down for the count.

Remember Telocity? It was one of the first companies to offer DSL service in the US, ahead of Ma Bell. Even though it was paying hefty amounts of money for the right to transport Internet traffic on Ma Bell’s lines, they had enormous problems with the same Ma Bell, due to problems that would somehow just happen to crop up on the same wires or the switching equipment. Then they’d have to pay more money so Ma Bell could fix their own equipment, which they’d say Telocity broke, etc., ad nauseam, and so on and so forth.

That’s just one example. Another was the more recent push to restructure the way cable services are provided (both TV and internet). One of the efforts was the a-la-carte programming initiative, and another was the push for faster and more reliable cable Internet services. You wouldn’t believe the advertising, PR and lobbying blitz the cable industry started and kept up for several months — actually, I’m fairly sure you saw their ads on TVs and buses everywhere, particularly in the Washington, DC area.

Or what about when they got together in late 2007 and 2008 to ask for an Internet tax? Remember the tiers of traffic they wanted to create? They wanted all the big websites to pay them for the traffic, as if they weren’t already getting enough money from the customers for their slow and unreliable services. They also wanted large chunks of money from the federal government in order to upgrade their infrastructure. No matter how much money they make, they’re so greedy they always want more, more, more.

What I’d like to know is how all these other countries, including Romania, can manage to offer faster and more reliable Internet services without asking for money from their countries’ government, without charging big websites for their traffic, and also by charging less per month for better broadband? How is that possible? Could it be that these companies actually know how to run their businesses while their counterparts in the US are filled with lazy, greedy idiots?

I still vividly remember an incident which happened while I was a director of IT at a Florida hospital, several years ago. A BellSouth technician had been called in to check the phone boards, and my network and servers kept going down and coming back up. The Medical Records system kept giving errors when employees wanted to access forms to fill in patient data, not to mention that other network services, like file sharing and printing, kept going on the fritz. I checked every one of the servers and they were fine. I finally walked into the switch room, at my wits’ end, only to find the moronic BellSouth employee with his fat, lazy butt on our UPS, jiggling it back and forth as he chatted with someone back at BellSouth HQ, plugging and unplugging the power supply that fed one of the main network switches. I went ballistic, grabbed him by the collar and threw him out of my switch room. Was he that stupid that he didn’t know where he was sitting? Was he such a pig that he couldn’t feel the plugs underneath him as he sat on them? He didn’t even want to apologize for taking out an entire hospital’s network during daytime hours. That’s BellSouth for you.

I don’t know how the US can get better broadband, unless it’s legislated. An ultimatum must be given by the government, one that can’t be overridden by any lobbyists or CEOs shedding crocodile tears in front of Congress. These companies simply will not get their act together until they, too, are grabbed by their collars and shaken about. They’ve gotten used to the status quo, they like it, and they’re clinging to it with all their might.

Meanwhile, here’s a sample of the Internet plans you can get in Romania right now. For comparison purposes, 1 Euro is worth about $1.4 these days.

Romtelecom (the main phone carrier, provides ADSL services):

  • 2 Mbps, 2084 kbps/512 kbps, 4.88 Euro/month
  • 4 Mbps, 4096 kbps/512 kbps, 7.02 Euro/month
  • 6 Mbps, 6144 kbps/512 kbps, 9.40 Euro/month
  • 8 Mbps, 8192 kbps/768 kbps, 14.16 Euro/month
  • 20 Mbps, 20480 kbps/1024 kbps, 24.87 Euro/month

[source]

Birotec (provides fiber optic services, all plans include phone line with varying amount of minutes based on plan price):

  • 3 Mbps up/down, 10 Euro/month
  • 4 Mbps up/down, 15 Euro/month
  • 6 Mbps up/down, 20 Euro/month
  • 8 Mbps up/down, 29 Euro/month
  • 10 Mbps up/down, 49 Euro/month

[source]

RDS (provides fiber optic, cable, cellular modem and dial-up access — prices not readily available on website):

  • Fiber optic access up to 2.5 Gbps
  • Cable access up to 30 Mbps

[source]

The lowest internet access plan in Romania is 2 Mbps. Cellular modems are advertised at speeds up to 3 Mbps. Meanwhile, in the US, you can still find 512 Kbps plans at prices twice or three times as much as the 2 Mbps plans in Romania. That’s the price of complacency and excessive lobbyism.

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