We Bought a House

Posted on Feb 5, 2014 in House | 2 comments

If you’re on the great FB, you know this. THE DREAM IS OURS!

Last week, we closed on our “new” home. It was built in 1915 so we’re very excited to be able to hold its centennial celebration next year (look for an Evite soon!). We’re now located in what’s called the Hollywood District of Portland. We weren’t too familiar with the area prior to finding this home because there are great schools in the vicinity, and that had been an indicator of being out of our price range. We did end up paying a tiny bit more than we wanted (our budget was set by ourselves to be artificially low so we’d be able to enjoy life… I’ll just have to drink a bit less beer now, which is difficult considering there are more breweries in this town than any other in the world), but the trick [by the selling agent] was that the home was listed at far below value. We looked, got hooked, and rode the wave upward. We still got a heck of a deal as the home appraised at a car’s worth more than what we paid; when we share that info with local real estate, mortgage, and title people, they’re shocked to hear that as usually it is only less or maybe $1-2k more. So… instant equity. Not a bad way to start. I’ll likely do a full write-up on home buying sometime soon, but for now I’ll talk about home itself.

The listing says it is three bedrooms, one bath, and 2300 square feet. One of those is true. One bath. The third bedroom is a finished attic space that we’ll likely use as a bedroom someday, but it really isn’t one. For now, I’m using it as my office and we’ll call it our hobby/secondary TV room. The square footage counts a massive unfinished basement, which features an existing workbench that I’ve already setup for use, tons of boxes, and a barely functional washer/dryer combo… More on those below. The size is almost too big for us now, but we’ve never had too much space so it’s a welcome predicament. It’ll be perfectly sized with a single kid, and if we go for two, we may need to look at finishing the basement as my office would likely get pushed out of the attic. We could dormer the attic, but we’d need another bathroom and the basement is much easier for that.

The house has amazing hardwoods and Craftsman-style detail preserved throughout. It’s really a place you walk into and say “Wow, that’s nice.” We love the charm… and we have already setup the guest bedroom so we hope you come soon to love it too :)

A 99 year old home is a handful. Ours is far better off than most we’ve seen, but over the past week we’ve been going pretty much nonstop between moving, unpacking, and repairs. I can’t speak for Heather (she has been just as busy as me, especially since she started a new job the day after we moved in) as I don’t have her to-do list in front of me, but here’s a glimpse at mine:

Day 3 [after moving boxes for two days]

  1. Install new dryer cord – Our dryer was left here unplugged and the plug that was left with it was not correct for the house. Odd. $20 at Home Depot buys you a new appliance cord. You just need to make sure you know what your outlet looks like. Take a picture with your phone. The differences have amperage details associated, but just match the prongs. Three machine screws are all that are involved. One of ours was cross-threaded and I ended up tearing it. We jury rigged a nut and bolt to work for now, but…
  2. Diagnose dryer not blowing hot and order part – I had never worked on a dryer before. They’re actually pretty simple devices if you can look past the half dozen failsafes they have. You’ve really just got a motor, blower, and a heating element. If you’re not blowing hot air, it is because a sensor has tripped (and they usually aren’t resettable/must be replaced) or your heating element/coil is shot. To test, you grab your multimeter and go to town testing continuity through each sensor and the element. My sensors all tested fine so I broke open the heating element and travelled down it until I no longer received a reading. Sure enough, the coil had burnt out and was severed. Hop on Amazon, order that $20 part, wait, plug it in, tie it all back up, and you’re good to go. Note: I seem to have gotten a crazy deal. You can expect to pay $50-100 for an element. If I had been looking at $100, we may have considered a new dryer.
  3. Repair lazy susan – Someone ripped the hinges out of the cabinetry while touring. Luckily, the cabinet wood was not damaged too badly and I was able to simply reattach.
  4. Figure out cabinet hinge popping – When you open our cabinets all the way and close them, you’re shocked with the nastiest plastic popping noise in the world. Fix? Read the label on the hinge. Blum. Do some Googling on “Blum hinge popping noise” and find that these are the original design of the hinge and are defective. Blum is an American company, they offer lifetime warranties, and these hinges will all be replaced for free.
  5. Cabinet shelves fall down – Some turkey lost the plastic pegs that hold them in place. Order those. Find that their peg is too deep for your cabinet. Buy some others at Home Depot. Find that their peg is also too deep (you weren’t paying attention when you bought these, were you, Michael?) and too narrow. We need another trip to Home Depot.
  6. Drill entertainment center cabinet hole. I use an antique dresser [sans its legs] as our entertainment center. In previous residences, I left the top drawers out of the unit and placed all my equipment in them. It was a pretty nice solution, but a bit unrefined so I was aiming for better. This time I chose to stack equipment on the dresser (we have much less equipment now), but needed a place to hide wires and power bricks. A CABINET. Except the cabinets are so tight fitting that it wouldn’t close. Solution? Pick up a nicely sized spade bit and cut half of a round hole in the top edge of the back of the cabinet. Wires run through that and we’re good to go. I did have a bit of a heat issue with our cable amplifier so I ended up removing that and tucking it behind the whole unit. We’re good now. Note: a 9.6V drill is good for very little. My grandfather’s corded Craftsman drill that predates me is a beast. I’m now shopping for a badassed cordless drill. If you’re looking to buy us a housewarming gift, look no further than here (need a battery and charger too… what’s another $hundred+?).
  7. Setup Xbox and cable – The Xbox One means to be your media center. Your cable actually routes through it and the Xbox provides its own interface to your cable experience. It is a much quicker UI than your cable box’s (most of them, anyway) and can be voice activated, which has very mixed results.
  8. Clean grease stain off of sofa – Our cross-country movers were terrible. They damaged quite a bit and that included a massive grease stain on a visible portion of our sofa. Oxiclean gel stick is the bomb. I’ve treated it once and the stain is nearly gone. I need to treat again and I’m sure it’ll vanish.
  9. Hook up new stereo system – We had an awesome 5.1 system previously. Amazing receiver, big towers, really nice sized surrounds, pumping sub… Except we don’t want the stereo to dominate our living room anymore. That stuff will all be for sale shortly. To replace it, we picked up on open-box Vizio S451w-B4 5.1 sound bar. I know what you’re thinking… no sound bar is 5.1. You’re correct. 5.1 is a physical description of what you’ve got going on (five speakers and a subwoofer). The catch with this is that it is the only [as far as I could find] sound bar that has rear speakers. Retail is $300. I honestly feel it is the best stereo money you could spend today. Not only is it minimal and pretty good looking, but the subwoofer and rear speakers are wireless so no drilling or running cables under your rugs. There is a little static when you hold the rears to your ear with no signal pumping through them, but if you have them any further than that or have good signal (volume not near muted) going to them, you can’t hear a thing. I’d like a bit more fine tuning of the settings (bass seems to differ greatly when you switch between optical and Bluetooth inputs), but again, for a $300 setup, this cannot be beat.
  10. Install test/cleanout cap/plug on sewer drain – The first time I attempted to do a load of laundry, I discovered a small flood surrounding the test cap of our sewer drain. This particular sewer pipe only serves the washer and our kitchen so there was no concern of human waste or cleanup, but still… that ain’t cool. A couple of things going on here. First, our test cap was non-functional. It was old and corroded. Remove it, measure the inner diameter of the pipe, head to Home Depot, and $5 later you have a brand spanking new cap. Install it, run a load of laundry, and… Only a minute overflow this time. The cap itself is sealed, but I think the pipe may be damaged. No worries, for there is another fix that I had planned anyway. A utility sink. Old pipes cannot handle the water output from modern washers. Fact. A utility sink regulates the water flowing down the drain by letting gravity do the work as opposed to the washer’s pump. Much more controlled. How this house didn’t already have a utility sink, I don’t know. One is on order. I’ll cut a foot or so off the pipe that the washer currently drains into, route the sink into it, route the washer into the sink, and voila. For now, the sink will simply be a drain. When I feel up to it, I’ll redo the plumbing at the washer (the taps need to be replaced so while it could be as simple as a couple of Y-adapters and hoses, I’d rather do it correctly and all in a single effort) and put a spigot on the sink.
  11. Secure the electrical panel – It wasn’t secure. Every man should have a couple bins of various fasteners. If you don’t, go to Home Depot and buy their multipacks of metric and standard nuts and bolts, washers, machine screws, and wood screws. Also pick up a few boxes of various nails. A couple of longer new bolts and washers here did the trick.
  12. Convert 2-prong receptacle to 3-prong – This is a hack and does not meet code, but as long as you know you’ve done it, there’s really no harm. Don’t use the outlet near water or with ancient raggedy old equipment. This is an outlet halfway up the wall in the living room. Rather than have use an adapter and deal with a loose old 2-prong, just swap it out. Turn off the power, unscrew it, note your positive and negatives (take pics with cell phone so you can reference), and put it all back in the wall. Most newer electrical devices don’t even use the third terminal if they fault. NBD. My solution certainly beat fishing a new cable to the outlet.

Day 4 [after moving a cargo van of our remaining items out of storage]

  1. Assemble new bed.
  2. Assemble new dining room table.
  3. Repair back door latch – Remember what I said about every man needing various fasteners? For real. If wood is stripped out, go with a longer wood screw. That was the trick here.
  4. Secure workbench shelf – There was a shelf installed at some point on the workbench. It was barely secured. The person did a nice job making it, but missed what seems to have been the final step. VARIOUS WOOD SCREWS. Sink ‘em. Secured.

Day 5 [Super Bowl... take it easy]

  1. Build my fancy heirloom/family lamp – A tapped piece of this broke in transit. Threads were damaged and the “bolt” was bent. Cover a vice grip in a towel, CLAMP, and keep trying. After about thirty minutes, I got the piece nearly back to round and was able to get enough threads to engage. I hope to never have to move this lamp again. Every man, in addition to their sets of fasteners, should have multiple rolls of blue paper shop towels. Not only do they clean stuff up, but they’re great for applying a lot of force to things with pliers and not damaging them with metal on metal contact and force.

Day 6

  1. Install heater element in dryer – Buttoning the dryer back up was cake. And the fix worked. Hopefully we bought another few years from this unit.
  2. Install new machine screw nut – Remember that one of the screws on our dryer power input was cross-threaded and I ended up ripping it? Well, that also means the nut was no good. They’re available for roughly $.20/ea at Home Depot. A little tricky to install yourself as it is a job much better suited to three hands, but I got it done.
  3. Replace dryer hose – Measure before you do this. Ours was full of holes and likely full of lint. We bought an 8′ replacement, which doesn’t have an inch to spare. We’ll likely need another once I install the utility sink because I’ll need to shuffle the machines over a bit. No, we didn’t measure.
  4. Install new dishwasher wheel – Ours was missing two. We only thought it was missing one. Amazon has these. Search for your brand and match up the picture. You’ll pay about $5 shipped unless you have something fancy or buy a complete set. I ordered another.

Day 7

  1. Install shower head – The one that came with the house is very nice and also brand new, but it is too low for me. I installed our old one, which angles upward. Unfortunately, it’s now about 8 years old and leaking. The washers look good so it may simply be time to replace it. I’m pretty sure the one that came with the house is also not low-flow, which was contributing to our hot water issue that I’ll mention later.
  2. Install Nest – The house had a pretty good programmable thermostat, but… Nest. Thermostats are so easy, and the Nest is even easier than most. Cut the power, take a picture of the old wiring (just in case you fail or the new thermostat isn’t compatible with your system and/or your wires are colored incorrectly), pop off the old, measure your mounting holes, mount, plug in wires, and do what it says. Usually it’ll say you’re money. Ours said our yellow wire had no power. Uhhh. Quick search of Nest’s site tells me that the yellow wire is for cooling. We don’t have cooling. Can I just tell it to ignore this? No. I pop the wire off and tuck it away. Done. Our Nest seems to have seized up a bit in transit and storage, but the company is great and while it doesn’t greatly affect our use of it, they’re going to send a replacement.
  3. Stop up hole at back door – We have a mouse-sized hole right under our back door. With the most mild climate in all of the US (~25 degree swing between winter and summer averages), sealing doors and windows isn’t a great concern. But a hole at ground level? Animals. I like ‘em, but not that much. My long-term solution will be some caulk or a piece of wood. My short-term solution was a balled up bit of packing cellophane. Don’t judge.

And I also work full-time…

My to-do list is shrinking, which is awesome. There’s still plenty to do, but the low hanging fruit has mostly been picked and the house is feeling much more comfortable for it.

Up next, we have our chimneys being repaired. This is being paid for by the seller via closing costs, but we opted to have a fancy cable-operated cap/damper installed since the house doesn’t have any sort of protection at the top already so there will be a few bucks out of our pockets. Our main chimney will be heavily repaired and our vent chimney will be removed from the roof up and replaced with a small pipe. We’re planning to do something creative with the removed bricks… Fire pit?

And then our roof needs to be replaced. Again, paid for by the seller as part of closing. We just need to get around to scheduling it and picking some shingles.

As far as work for us to do, I have a leaking washer to diagnose and repair (much more difficult than a dryer… maybe just replace?), install the utility sink when it arrives, install and repair some GFCI outlets, repair some regular outlets and switches, continue unpacking, and finally clean. Getting rid of all our boxes and materials will be a fun little mission too.

Long term, we don’t have much hot water despite having a relatively new water heater (only 40 gallons, but we’re definitely not getting that out of it since it is maxed on temp and we can’t get two showers back to back), the water line coming into our house is very restricted by corrosion so we’ll need to replace that and might as well schedule redoing all of our clean plumbing with flexible lines at the same time, and last but not least, the home’s electrical is rather dated so we’d like to do a full replacement of that eventually too.

In response to “How do you know how to do that stuff?” Google. There is answer for everything out there. Many of them come with videos. Supply a part or model number and explain your issue, and you’ll find an answer nine times out of ten. With a nice set of tools (not Chinese, store-brand, or off-brand) and some patience, anyone can save themselves a ton of money and fix nearly anything they own; homes, computers, cars, bicycles, etc. Very few repairs I’ve encountered require a learned skill or special tool. Sure, you can likely get them done 3x faster with proper experience, but that’s for you to decide… Do you feel like a challenge? Is the item you’re going to work on even worth your time? Is it worth someone else’s time? With practice, the bar of what you can do and how fast is constantly improved, your wallet is made heavier, and your wife will give you more thanks.

Yes, I realized I have been all “man,” and “husband” in this post. This is my blog, I’m a man, and my experience is that most of the above is stuff that men do. SEXISM! No, just an observation. Women can be handy and I think it is awesome and sexy when they are. Heather is eager to watch me get my hands dirty in order to learn and isn’t afraid to get hers nasty too, but… I’ve digressed like I like to do so back to the subject at hand.

We’re loving the house and the neighborhood. It is really starting to feel like home. We’ve met a few neighbors so far and they’re all incredibly friendly, and one even came over and helped us carry a heavy load! You don’t see that in NoVA! The little things are slowing down and we’ve been able to start to get back to living after only a week. I can’t wait for more of it all.

How To: Turn off a MacBook’s internal display when using external monitor

Posted on Feb 3, 2014 in Tech | 0 comments

WARNING: Only attempt this with a laptop that has an SSD. If you do not know what SSD means or need to check a manufacturer’s website to find if you have one, read no further.

There are certain things that nag many Mac users that seem like simple fixes, but Apple never seems to address them. For me, that’s using an external monitor with a MacBook.

Yes, you can use clamshell mode. You hook up your monitor and then close your laptop. That’s a nice and clean solution EXCEPT that it causes your wireless throughput to cut in half. Such is life with a unibody metal design. When you close it, signals have a heck of a time getting in and out.

Yes, you could dim the display until it turns off. Unfortunately, that’s not actually off and you’ll lose your mouse from time to time when it wanders over into no man’s land. Good luck getting it back without looking like you’re having a seizure at your desk.

The best solution that I’ve found? A magnet. Get a small and low powered magnet. Somewhere on your machine (it seems Apple has been putting it near the audio jack lately), and with a certain polarity (you may need to swipe around and/or flip the magnet over, you’ll get the laptop to think you have closed it. The screen will turn off, you’ll still have full wireless signal, and you’ll be able to leave it open and not worry about losing your mouse. In order to turn the screen back on, open and close the laptop, or flip the magnet over and the “open” magnet should trigger somewhere around the same place as the closing one. You do not need to leave the magnet sitting on the device. Once you trick it, you can put the magnet away.

Why the warning? Oh, only because magnets and computers do not mix. With a machine that is entirely solid-state (I have a MacBook Air), you’re fine, but you really do not want a magnet anywhere near a traditional spinning hard drive because “OOPS!” there goes your data.

Exploratory Software Testing

Posted on Jan 28, 2014 in Books, Media, QA, Tech | 0 comments

I’d heard of the subject before, vaguely knew some things about it, thought it was the type of testing I had naturally evolved to, and vowed to really find out by reading Exploratory Software Testing by James A. Whittaker.

As it turns out, my weak understanding was mostly wrong. The entire strategy is based upon testing “tour” metaphors that can be visualized by thinking of yourself as a person “touring” in a new city. That new city being your code. What I did understand and agree with fully in both mind and practice is the idea that strict adherence to a detailed test case or test plan is not efficient, not enjoyable, and metaphorically speaking, not the best way to see town. Instead, write test cases that are more of a general guide and do your own exploration in order to introduce variance with each run. The tour metaphor is ever-expanding and will be different for each team and each feature. The author presented his list of favorite tours, which can conveniently be found on MSDN (the author used to [maybe still does?] work at Microsoft and most of this book was MS-centric).

My takeaways (as usual, personal comments and clarifications in italics):

  • Behind most good ideas is a graveyard of those that weren’t good enough. This is a universal. Don’t be afraid to screw up/do something worthless because it is all part of the process.
  • The modern practice of manual testing is aimless, ad hoc, and repetitive.
  • Software is peerless in its ability to fail.
  • Software is not, and likely never will be, bug free.
  • There is no replacement for the tester attitude of “how can I break this.” Any development team that thinks they can get away without dedicated QA persons is fooling itself. I’ve seen this time and again in the gaming industry as I’m privy to many an alpha and beta from knowing folks in the industry and my previous experience running a major gaming site. I’ve not yet been close to a project that ignored QA and did not fail. Not to say they don’t occur, but my personal experience is a goose egg. It is too hard for someone who was in the code to step back and say to themselves “This sucks.” You need someone disconnected, but fully respected to say that.
  • The less time a bug lives, the better off we’ll all be. Bugs found in design are the best kind.
  • If testers are judged based on the number of tests they run, automation will win every time. If they are based on the quality of tests they run, it’s a different matter altogether.
  • Automation suffers from many of the same problems that other forms of developer testing suffers from: It’s run in a laboratory environment.
  • Test automation can find only the most egregious of failures: crashes, hangs (maybe), and exceptions. … Subtle/complex failures are missed.
  • Manual testing is the best choice for finding bugs related to the underlying business logic of an application.
  • Tester-based detection is our best hope at finding the bugs that matter.
  • Exploratory testing allows the full power of the human brain to be brought to bear on finding bugs and verifying functionality without preconceived restrictions. Don’t let yourself get bogged down by manual scripts. THINK. Otherwise you might as well be a robot and then be automated.

EPIC DIGRESSION: I’ve never had luck outsourcing testing to India and this is the reason why. The workers there are not encouraged to think, and instead treated and expected to function as worker bees. Follow instructions to a tee, don’t raise your hand, put in your hours, and get paid. I was involved early in outsourcing and several stories from colleagues lead me to believe it has changed for the better, but it was so bad for me that I still have that filthy taste in my mouth and would never proactively attempt to implement Asian testing for my team until I saw it work first-hand somewhere. At a recent QA Meetup, a colleague at Symantec actually mentioned they have it working really well there. It involved A LOT of effort from both sides of the ocean. I think that was what we missed in the early days. We assumed we could just drop things on these people and they’d get it done. Outsourcing with European countries now, I don’t know if it is just the individuals or the culture that matters, but we get amazing work from a group that considers themselves part of our team, company, and culture. It is a relationship that has been cultivated over many years and the fruit it bears is wonderful.

  • Exploratory testing is especially suited to modern web application development using agile methods. … Features often evolve quickly, so minimizing dependent artifacts (like pre-prepared test cases) is a desirable attribute. … If the test case has a good chance of becoming irrelevant, why write it in the first place?
  • Having formal scripts can provide a structure to frame exploration, and exploratory methods can add an element of variation to scripts that can amplify their effectiveness.
  • Start with formal scripts and use exploratory techniques to inject variation into them. In my case, I do this when regressing a feature. On initial testing, I stick very closely to my script. With subsequent runs, tracing those same code paths is unlikely to discover anything new. I inject this variation then and use my former test plan to guide me to all the code, but I will not take all those same steps.
  • We need the human mind to be present when software is tested.
  • Testing is infinite; we’re never really done, so we must take care to prioritize tasks and do the most important things first.
  • Don’t allow stubbornness to force you into testing the same paths over and over without any real hope of finding a bug or exploring new territory.
  • All software is fundamentally the same. … [They] perform four basic tasks: They accept input, produce output, store data, and perform computation.
  • It is good to keep in mind that most developers don’t like writing error code.
  • No matter how you ultimately do testing, it’s simply too complex to do it completely.
  • As testers, we don’t often get a chance to return at a later date. Our first “visit” is likely to be our only chance to really dig in and explore our application. We can’t afford to wander around aimlessly and take the chance that we miss important functionality and major bugs.
  • Tours represent a mechanism to both organize a tester’s thinking about how to approach exploring an application and in organizing actual testing. A list of tours can be used as a “did you think about this” checklist.

Despite my plentiful notes, I didn’t really care for this book. I feel it could have been summarized in 40 pages or so. The touring metaphor is a great one that I’ll keep handy in my tool belt, but the book had a number of user stories (don’t think Agile) from using the tours that didn’t really add anything, there was a good amount of general testing knowledge that is always a nice reminder, but better suited for a different book, and it finished with this wildly optimistic/futuristic section on the future of testing that had nothing at all to do with the subject I cared about reading. I had a fair amount of difficulty getting through this one, but I’m glad I did because ultimately it will make me better at what I do.

2 out of 5. Too much noise.

My other QA book reviews:

Don’t Make Me Think – A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability

2013 Year in Review

Posted on Jan 1, 2014 in General | 2 comments

Another good one in the books. Facebook has a decent version of my year, which contains pictures (think: fun).

GoalsI set them a bit differently this time around and despite a few setbacks, all went pretty well. Less pressure to get things done, but I still managed to do better. Green = accomplished, orange = unobtainable, red = failed.

  • Find a place we love and can afford to start a family in [link]. Found it and moved there. Crushed this one. Hello, Portland.
  • Spend more time with friends. Going to take a pass on this one. I think I did a better job of it when we were still in VA, but half the year was spent moving and settling into a new town.
  • Beat video games I had put down. Gaming lost a good bit of focus this year. I did beat one or two games, but ended up selling all of my unbeaten games before moving and focusing on one or two games online only.
  • Keep up with reading, reviewing, and blogging. Read 16 books (versus 16 the previous year) for 5284 pages (versus 5292), wrote 65 reviews on Yelp (versus 36), and wrote 36 blog posts (versus 65), which tended to have a lot more substance so good enough for me.
  • Perform better in athletics. Ran into some hurdles, but ran more (400 miles versus 350), biked more (3510 versus 2714), and ran my best 5k as an adult (18:24). All this while missing roughly half the year due to the broken wrist and moving. Great success.
  • Eat smarter and lose weight. Ate smarter, but didn’t lose any weight by year’s end (did early, though) and am currently not in the greatest of shape. I blame moving.
  • Strengthen our marriage. Read two books on the subject and am doing the best I can :) Did it get stronger? Hard to measure, but she’s still putting up with me so and agreed to move across the country so I suppose it can’t be too bad. I highly recommend The 5 Love Languages: The Secret to Love That Lasts. Note: there is a men’s version that is what I read. It is only slightly different.
  • Overachieve at work. Easily worked harder than any other year. Did a lot of professional reading too. Feeling very good about my performance.
  • Do less [link]. Did more (see above), but did so much less. Resigned from the running club and moved, which freed up a ton of time that I’ve been able to still completely fill.

Notable Events

  • January – Mom became a 2-year survivor of Grade IV brain cancer. Doubled the odds at this point.
  • February – Paid a visit to the family in NC, turned 31, and got new glasses.
  • April – Competed in my first bike race, which coincided with visiting an old friend in Charlottesville. Celebrated our first anniversary by having an awesome bed & breakfast weekend, and went to Kentucky for a bachelor party.
  • May – Parents stayed with us for a week or so, ran a fast 5k (18:24), broke my wrist, and scouted Portland.
  • June – Worked from NYC (and saw a bunch of friends AND photobombed Hanson on national TV!) for a few days while piggybacking a friend’s work trip.
  • July – Attended my cousin’s wedding in upstate PA/downstate NY, got my cast off, and went to Montreal for another bachelor party.
  • September – Attended a wedding in Richmond, visited family in NC, got a new nephew, had an amazing going away party, and packed our things in a truck.
  • October – Drove across the country, spent a week watching a stranger’s cat, spent a week watching our friends’ cats in Seattle, and lived all over the place.
  • November – Tried my hand at cyclocross in the NW and spent nearly two weeks in VA for Thanksgiving.
  • December – Attended our first Portland show (The Head and the Heart), spent a week in VA for work followed by a few days in NC with the family, had a quiet Christmas with just the two of us, did a handful of Portland Christmas things, and had an offer accepted on what’s looking to be our home for the foreseeable future.
Quite a year. Can be summed up with “Mom is still crushing it and we moved across the country.” I will continue with my poorly defined goals in 2014. Look for a post regarding them in the next few days.

Previous years in review: 200620072008200920102011, 2012.

How Verizon scammed me to make a sale

Posted on Dec 20, 2013 in General | 4 comments

Ever have one of those door-to-door cable (I know, it’s not cable, it’s fiber) salesmen come  to your door hoping to change your provider? This happened to me three months prior to moving across the country.

I dismissed the salesman originally by telling him I was about to move and the savings would have to be huge to warrant the effort of switching from Comcast to Verizon. He showed me some numbers and the savings simply weren’t there. He walked away.

Five minutes later, he came walking back. He had called up the chain, found a way to save me money, and was ready to show me the new plan. It was a good deal and worth the effort to make the switch for the three month period.

Throughout this process, it was made abundantly clear that I was moving very soon (he was inside our house and we had already started packing boxes). He assured me multiple times that because I was moving to Portland, OR and Verizon does not serve the area, that I would be able to close my account without any recourse. We went so far as to actually confirm this lack of coverage on his phone. My wife was witness to this conversation; I’m not imagining things.

He left, we switched over, and were very happy saving $30 a month for what we considered to be a better service.

Three months later, we pack up, close the account, and make the move.

We receive our final bill, and sure enough, there’s a $210 early termination fee. $10 per month not served on our two-year contract.

I immediately contact Verizon support. They treat me like a piece of meat and spit me out saying that the fee is mentioned in the contract and I’ll have to pay it. I explain that a verbal agreement is a contract too. They disagree. I ask if it is common for them to not honor the words of their salesmen, and they more or less ignore the question. Infuriated at the lack of customer “service,” I end communication.

And then I traveled a month or so, ignored the issue, and hoped that someone from their billing department would take a second look and waive the fee. Nope. I continue receiving bills.

At the end of my travel, I take to Twitter to share my story. I am contacted by Verizon’s social media support team. I’ve dealt with such support groups when I’ve been vocal on other issues with other businesses so I’m left very hopeful. They’re pleasant, seem to listen to my case, and send it it up the chain. A day later, they receive word that there is no notice of a waive of the fee noted on my account. So apparently this is something that could have been noted when I originally signed up,  but the salesman neglected to make it happen? Not only did he fail to do that, but he first lied to me about it being a policy of not charging a fee when you move out of coverage. Double whammy of failure and lies.

So I paid the amount. This $210 fee, which cost them $0 will end up costing them a vocal supporter (I was an early adopter of FiOS and have always loved it) and future customer. They care not. They got their money and the case is closed.

What recourse or protections do we have as consumers anymore? The big companies want money at no cost and there’s nobody to protect us. I’ve filed my case with the FTC (should I do the same with the FCC?), but I’ll never see anything come of that. Had I stood my ground, which was the right ground to stand on, I’d have had my credit wrecked.

I wish I had an answer. All I’ve got is this blog.

Update: January 17, 2014 — Following a series of snafus with my bank (they froze my account after I sent a bill-pay to my landlord for rent and I was unable to get it unfrozen for a matter of weeks [I can't run away from E*Trade fast enough, either, but I digress]), it turns out my payment did not go through. Verizon has since sent us to collections and added another $30 fee. Before receiving notice of this, my wife went in and paid the original amount again, but now I’m sure we get to deal with this extra $30 too since it was en route to us. Anyway, I’m fully fed up with the lack of service we’ve received on this and have notified Verizon of my intent to file with small claims court.

Don’t Make Me Think – A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability

Posted on Dec 19, 2013 in Books, Media, QA, Tech | 0 comments

A book review? Yeah, sure, kinda. I tend to highlight the crap out of professional books that I read. I rarely go back and look at the highlights so this exercise is as much for me as it is for you.

Don’t Make Me Think, Revisited: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability. Not yet released. This is the one you want. My only complaint about the 2nd edition, which I read, is that it is awfully dated (I think he uses Netscape in an example or two). If you want to buy, use that link so I get a kickback. I’m not shy about referrals.

Good read. Short enough that it can comfortably consumed on a flight across the country (I did it in two because Candy Crush has got my attention).

Anyway, my takeaways (personal comments or clarification in italics):

  • The most important thing you can do is to just understand the basic principle of eliminating question marks.
  • For most of us, it doesn’t matter to us whether we understand how things work, as long as we can use them.
  • Many designers tend to underestimate just how much value conventions provide.
  • Innovate when you know you have a better idea (and everyone you show it to says “Wow!”), but take advantage of conventions when you don’t.
  • Making the choices mindless is one of the main things that make a site easy to use.
  • The main thing you need to know about instructions is that no one is going to read them.
  • The concept of Home pages is so important. Every site needs a landing page of sorts that makes sense of the whole.
  • It’s no fun feeling lost. Navigation that is clear and logical is very important.
  • If the navigation is doing its job, it tells you implicitly where to begin and what your options are.
  • Every page needs a name.
  • The name needs to match what I clicked.
  • The most common failing of “You are here” indicators is that they’re too subtle.
  • Search. Every site needs it regardless of whether or not it makes absolute sense. Everybody finds things in different ways, and many are wired to look for a search field by default. It doesn’t need to be anything grand; a simple text search of your site will suffice in many cases. No need to make it keyword driven, which adds to maintenance.
  • Designing a Home page inevitably involves compromise.
  • Don’t confuse a tagline with a motto.
  • All Web users are unique, and all Web use is basically idiosyncratic.
  • Testing one user is 100 percent better than testing none. In reference to usability testing.
  • The best-kept secret of usability testing is the extent to which it doesn’t much matter who you test.
  • In general, if the user’s second guess about where to find things is always right, that’s good enough.
  • [as a user] should never have to think about formatting data.
  • Ignore all comments that users make about colors during a user test, unless three out of four people use a word like “puke” to describe the color scheme.
4 out of 5. The updated version is likely a 5 out of 5.

How to connect your Xbox One to hotel wireless

Posted on Dec 12, 2013 in Tech | 9 comments

Most hotels have some sort of web-based authentication in order to use their wireless networks. Some devices (Xboxes) are unable to handle those. The systems behind these wireless networks are based on device MAC addresses, which are basically unique identifiers of your hardware. Once you’ve authenticated with an identifier, it is “trusted” for a set period of time (typically 24 hours). It is possible to lie about your identifier, which is what we’ll be doing here. There are a number of articles on doing this with your Xbox 360, but nary a one for the One. Microsoft has made it a little bit easier this time around, but only slightly.

Previously, you had to spoof your MAC address (of your Xbox) on another device (I used LinkLiar on my Mac and most seem to use Mac Makeup on Windows), connect to the wireless, accept the agreement/enter your code, disconnect, set your MAC address back on your device, and then connect with your Xbox. You can still do that if you’d like, but there is another way assuming you have a device that you can connect to the wireless, can get the MAC address from, and does not need connected to the wireless in the future (think: your smartphone).

  1. Connect your device to the hotel’s wireless network
  2. Fill out the agreement and/or code that pops up
  3. Find the MAC address of the device you connected (Android | iOS)
  4. Disconnect your device from the hotel’s wireless
  5. Connect your Xbox One to the wireless (you will be told there’s one of a number of problems with your connection, which can vary depending on the system the hotel is using)
  6. Do not attempt any of the recommended steps and instead choose to edit your connection
  7. Go into the wireless connection’s advanced settings
  8. Scroll down to and select “Alternate MAC address”
  9. Put your other device’s MAC address in there (Note: Use dashes in place of colons)

Voila! Your Xbox One is now doing the spoofing of its own address. This was much easier for me than the old method of spoofing my Xbox’s MAC address on another device, connecting, unspoofing my other device, etc., etc.

I’m assuming all of the above can also be done with a wired connection too, but I’ve not had an opportunity to try it.

I’m still not sure why Microsoft can’t handle these types of network authentications now that they’ve included a full-blown version of Internet Explorer, but it is possible they just haven’t gotten to it considering how rushed they were to get the One out the door (let’s face it, we’re currently using a beta). We can only hope that they’ll include it in a future update.